East Lansing’s Downtown Development Authority Votes for Independent Counsel

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Raymond Holt for ELi

DDA members Lynsey Clayton and Jim Croom at the July 25, 2019, meeting. Both participated in today's meeting to facilitate the search for independent expert counsel.

East Lansing’s Downtown Development Authority is hiring. Wanted: Independent legal counsel with expertise in “real estate development and transactional matters” to provide the DDA representation distinct from the City Attorney’s representation of the City of East Lansing.

During a special board meeting this morning, the DDA voted unanimously to approve an amended version of a staff-drafted Request for Proposals (RFP). The call will officially go out early next week and whomever is selected may be hired as soon as the end of July.

The amendments were made primarily by DDA member Jim Croom, who has been the leading voice in the DDA’s move to seek independent counsel.

Himself an attorney, Croom suggested that the RFP not be limited to attorneys located in the Greater East Lansing Area, as written in the original proposal. He also offered other text changes to “put a finer point” on the type of representation the DDA should obtain.

On the Zoom-hosted meeting, East Lansing Director of Planning Tom Fehrenbach said the reason City staff had suggested limiting the pool to local firms was to limit travel costs that would have to be reimbursed.

But Croom noted that for the foreseeable future, travel costs will be mitigated by the digital nature of meetings. Croom argued for inviting any attorney licensed in the State of Michigan to apply.

Croom also moved to specify that the DDA is seeking someone to work “primarily on real estate development and transactional matters.”

He also asked to note in the RFP that the DDA is likely to be needing help soon with a “land sale agreement,” and he changed the first bullet point of the “Scope of Services” section to read: “Review, draft and negotiate real estate and development contracts and leases and related transactional documents.”

All of Croom’s proposed changes were unanimously adopted. 

“These changes more or less focus [on the point] that we’re looking for real estate expertise – somebody who does this every day, all day,” Croom said during the meeting. 

City Manager George Lahanas voted in favor of the RFP but wanted to make clear that, in general, “I would not support broadly having a second attorney, because in terms of cost efficiency, it’s not really as good as having our City Attorney.”

The DDA will pay for these services out of its own funds.

Croom’s changes were the only substantive alterations and the rest of the discussion centered around the timeline of releasing the RFP, reviewing responses, and making a decision. 

In discussing the manner in which to review responses to the RFPs, DDA member Lynsey Clayton suggested the RFPs be reviewed by the Executive and Finance Committee of the DDA before coming to the full DDA.

In agreeing to that, the DDA ultimately decided to set the deadline for responses for Wednesday, July 15. On July 16, the DDA’s Executive and Finance Committee will take a first pass at the applications. Then the full DDA will consider the committee’s recommendations the next week, at its regularly-scheduled meeting on July 23. 

July 23 is also the date the DDA is expected to take up the question of whether to extend the exclusive agreement with River Caddis Development for the DDA’s Evergreen Ave. properties. It’s that deal – which was discussed by a stakeholder committee earlier this week – that is the current impetus for hiring expert counsel.

Croom noted that River Caddis Development has as its counsel an attorney from Honigman’s office in Kalamazoo, and suggested the DDA needs someone of a similar caliber in terms of expertise in big real estate deals

As East Lansing’s long-time municipal attorney and local prosecutor, City Attorney Tom Yeadon is not someone who has spent most of his professional life working on multi-million-dollar real estate transactions like the kind the City has taken on with the Center City and Park District deals.

In July 2019, Yeadon’s contract was renewed for three years with a 25 percent bump in pay in a contentious 3-2 vote. Aaron Stephens, now the Mayor Pro Tem, voted against that renewal, while Ruth Beier, now Mayor, voted for it. Stephens filled in for Beier today at the DDA, and voted in favor of the move to hire another attorney for some of the DDA’s work.

Gary Caldwell for ELi

From left: Mayor Pro Tem Aaron Stephens, City Attorney Tom Yeadon, City Manager George Lahanas, and Mayor Ruth Beier at the March 11, 2020, meeting of Council.

The RFP is expected to be distributed digitally to firms across the state early next week. The City will also likely put out a press release and post the RFP to the City’s website to ensure wide dissemination. 

Alice Dreger contributed background reporting on the City Attorney’s contract and on the River Caddis Development deal.

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