The City of East Lansing’s website states that the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) “makes government more transparent by guaranteeing access to government records,” but further scrutiny reveals that those in the City charged with fulfilling FOIA requests have repeatedly obfuscated delivery of requested documents.
A review of requests from ELi shows that, for no apparent reason, the City took more than the legally allotted time to respond to a relatively simple request, consistently waited until the last legal moment permissible to supply documents, provided ambiguous responses that obscured the question of what type of information was being redacted (contrary to the law), treated separate requests for essentially the same material differently (turning it over in one case and refusing it in another), and sometimes mysteriously withholding material while claiming to provide everything requested.
ELi reached out to all five members of City Council for comment. Mayor Aaron Stephens and Council member Ron Bacon did not reply to requests for comment, but this story will be updated if they do.
“I would like to see FOIA requests handled as efficiently and completely as possible and I hope to work with Councilmember Babcock and our City Attorneys to streamline our FOIA process,” Mayor Pro Tem Jessy Gregg told ELi. “Hopefully consistency will mean less errors, less stress for our staff and better results for people requesting information.”
“It’s high time we revised our City’s FOIA policy,” Council member Lisa Babcock told ELi last week. “I am disappointed in myself because that was one of my priorities when I took office. A year in, it’s clear that the mere presence of different Council members has not resulted in a difference in how the City handles FOIA requests. Following any law, especially the Freedom of Information Act, is a top priority of any representative government.”
“I don’t want us to be a part of the problem,” City Council member Dana Watson told ELi about these transparency issues.
East Lansing’s Fire Department failed to follow basic requirements of Michigan’s FOIA law for months.
On Mar. 9, 2020, working as an ELi reporter on policing issues in East Lansing, Chris Root filed a FOIA request with East Lansing’s Fire Department to try to ascertain how often people in the East Lansing jail needed paramedics to be called.
State law requires a written response within five business days, but ELFD did not respond in writing to acknowledge the request. Fire Chief Randy Talifarro appeared to refer in oral comments to our request at the Mar. 11, 2020, City Council meeting, but ELi received no formal response.
Root followed up on Mar. 23, and then obtained only a short and informal response from an ELFD staff member indicating that the department wasn’t going to provide anything at all, because of HIPAA (the federal medical privacy law). Root wrote back on Mar. 30 to explain that this refusal of any information about how often paramedics were called to the jail was legally inappropriate.
After getting no response of the kind required under law, ELi appealed to then-Mayor Ruth Beier on May 19, 2020. (In 2018, in a controversial 3-2 vote, Council designated the mayor the person to respond to FOIA appeals for East Lansing.) In early June, Beier provided an undated response to ELi’s appeal, agreeing that we were due substantial materials under the law.
After being told we could not be given anything, ELi finally received copies of hundreds of pages of records in response. But these were provided without a cover letter indicating (as required by law) what was included, unavailable, or redacted, making it difficult for us to ascertain what we could know or not know from the response.
In early November, ELi Publisher Alice Dreger emailed Beier’s successor, Mayor Aaron Stephens, explicitly asking for “a letter clearly indicating what was included and especially what was not included in the materials provided.”
Dreger received an email signed by an unnamed “FOIA Coordinator” that explained what bits of information the City had redacted. In response to a question about the identity of “FOIA Coordinator,” Nicole Mosteller, Assistant to the City Manager, stated that letter was “ultimately from our FOIA Coordinator, City Manager George Lahanas.”
ELi has also observed dubious explanations of why the Human Rights Commission has been denied access to certain materials — the same kinds ELi itself has gotten from the City.
During the Nov. 4, 2020, meeting of the Human Rights Commission (HRC), several commissioners, including Chair Chuck Grigsby, expressed their frustration with the East Lansing Police Department over an apparent lack of transparency.
A sub-committee of the HRC had been expecting to see some number of videos and police reports — several commissioners said they requested 20, but commissioners also referenced a list of 12 videos — from the ELPD that included “use of force” incidents since January of 2019.
That request was made in July after Council approved a resolution in June to address the City’s use of force policy in response to two high-profile cases of alleged excessive force by an officer. The HRC and ELi are trying to understand how use of force plays out in East Lansing policing.
In the end, the HRC sub-committee was only allowed to see two videos — one of which was unrelated to their request — and one police report.
Following up on criticisms by Root, Grigsby called into the Nov. 10 City Council meeting to express his frustrations with the situation. City Manager George Lahanas asserted that if an ambulance is called, HIPAA prevents the City from sharing related police video. He also asserted that mental health issues or ongoing case matters prevent the release of videos and reports.
But ELi has received the type of body camera footage from the City, requested under FOIA, that Lahanas says cannot be publicly released.
Footage ELi received under FOIA shows a use of force incident where an ambulance was called for someone having a mental-health crisis as a result of ingestion of an hallucinogen. The individual’s face is blurred in the video and sound is redacted where their name is mentioned. We were also given written reports of the type denied to the HRC. Dreger noted this to Lahanas and Council during a public comment following Lahanas’ assertion about HIPAA preventing any access to these records.
Lahanas’ claims about ongoing investigations preventing any records release were similarly undercut when local activist Edmund Rushton called in to the same meeting to note that the video in the Anthony Loggins Jr. case was released during an ongoing investigation. In his comments to Council, Lahanas suggested the City would need subjects’ permission to release sensitive videos, but Rushton noted the City released videos of Loggins without Loggins’ permission.
Responding to a request for comment from ELi, Deputy Police Chief Steve Gonzalez wrote that: “Our department was presented two lists [from HRC members] requesting unredacted body camera video. The first consisted of a series of 12 videos being requested by the HRC. Weeks later we were presented with a revised request from the HRC of five videos. These five videos were part of the original 12. Of these five, two were not shared due to their relation to an open case or medical/mental health crisis. Of the remaining three, two videos were shared with a sub-committee of the HRC. The third case did not have any video, but the police report and incident is available for discussion.”
Gregg told ELi that “I hope to follow up with Mr. Grigsby to determine if there’s a way to get the commission the information that they need to move forward with the use-of-force evaluation while still respecting the privacy of individuals who haven’t been found guilty of a crime.”
The City has delayed release of materials that are in fact readily locatable, claiming weeks are needed “to search for and retrieve” the materials.
At the first meeting of the Study Committee on an Independent Police Oversight Commission, a reference was made to 13 documents provided to the committee but not released with the agenda.
ELi filed a FOIA request (2020-199) to get the materials. The City informed ELi it would take three weeks to provide it.
Dreger complained to Council, and was then given a link to the electronic drive that contained the 13 documents.
This was not a special case. ELi has run into this time and again, as when the City claimed it needed three weeks to find a major project site plan that the City had publicly indicated was actively being reviewed by Planning Department staff.
The City sometimes claims to be providing all requested material while withholding requested material.
When the Brownfield Redevelopment Authority moved to refinance the Center City Bonds, it put out a Request for Proposals (RFP), giving potential investors one week to express interest. Just after the deadline passed, ELi filed a FOIA request to see all the responses, of any kind, during that week.
After being put off for three weeks so that the City could “search for and retrieve” emails from whomever expressed interest — three weeks being the maximum time the City can take under the law to answer — ELi received copies of two short email chains responsive to the request. In the cover letter then provided, the City claimed to be turning over all “responsive” material. But in the cover letter, the City Clerk specifically pointed us also to the City’s Q&A webpage that had been generated from questions submitted by someone(s) whose messages were not provided to ELi.
Although the City claimed they weren’t holding anything back in the response, they obviously held back the emails of whomever asked those questions — unless it was City Staff that had generated the questions, which has not been explained to be the case.
ELi appealed to Mayor Aaron Stephens on Nov. 12, 2020, and has not received a formal response to that appeal. He has 10 business days to respond to this appeal — potentially adding two more weeks until a full response.
The City Manager tells ELi that City staff didn’t understand that our request for “detailed billing statements” meant we wanted “itemized billing statements”
In September, ELi requested from the City under FOIA “detailed billing statements” for all of the City’s legal expenses for Fiscal Year 2020. Our goal was to understand what East Lansing taxpayers are really spending on legal work for the City, so we wanted to see all of the detailed billing statements from all the lawyers paid during FY-2020.
After three weeks elapsed, on Oct. 12, 2020, ELi received a formal response from the City saying the records were attached, with no suggestion that there were any redactions.
But the invoices to the City from Keller Thoma — the law firm that handles labor law for the City — didn’t include any information about what was being billed for. They billed just for unspecified “services rendered.” Further, quite strangely, some of the invoices from Keller Thoma had another client’s name and address listed at the top, only to be crossed out in pen with “City of East Lansing” written above.
“Based on what I’ve seen, these are troubling bills,” Babcock, herself a lawyer, told ELi.
Dreger wrote to Lahanas seeking clarification. Lahanas answered, “When the City initially responded, we had a different interpretation of what you were requesting. As indicated in our response letter, we believed that we were granting the documents you were looking for. After receiving your email, we understand that you are looking for the full itemized list of charges. As a result, we are happy to supplement our response and provide a cover letter explaining any exemptions. You can expect those documents on or before November 18, 2020.”
So, it turns out there is a second set of billing statements from Keller Thoma that apparently do have details about why the City is paying them? We are waiting to find out.
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