Material just released by the City of East Lansing under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) confirms what was claimed in an anonymous complaint to City Council – that Mayor Ron Bacon did want then-City Manager George Lahanas to seriously consider a staff member’s draft plan for a substantial reorganization of the city government.
The material released also shows Tim Dempsey, former Deputy City Manager and now Interim Director of Planning, telling Interim City Manager Randy Talifarro he believed the draft reorganization plan was contributing to poor staff morale. But Mayor Pro Tem Jessy Gregg has said the matter is overblown and should be “put to rest.”
ELi reported this morning that Adam Cummins, former Community & Economic Development Administrator, has identified himself as the author of the draft reorganization plan. The eight-page document in question had outlined a plan to create a new Department of Culture, Equity, & Placemaking that would – if created as described – fall under the Department of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI). It would have involved moving funding and staff from various units of the city.
In a written communication to Council last night, shared by Cummins with ELi, Cummins said the plan was merely an idea and “should no longer be the focus of discussion.”
But he did not address the anonymous complaint’s claim that Bacon took the plan to then-City Manager George Lahanas to advocate for it. The anonymous complaint frames this as a violation of the City Charter’s limits on the Council’s actions and as contributing to a sense of organizational disarray, ultimately contributing to the wave of top staff’s resignations.
The newly released materials show that on Sept. 26, 2022, Bacon sent a message to Lahanas with a cc to Mayor Pro Tem Jessy Gregg, with the subject line, “Proposed realignment for community development, DEI, business, peacemaking and culture.” (It seems likely the word “peacemaking” was supposed to be “placemaking” based on Cummins’ draft plan.)
Attaching Cummins’ plan, Bacon’s message said in its entirety, “I am looking to streamline and accelerate our community and business development apparatus. I think long term consolidation and new commitments to development are in natural conflict due to the stark difference in goals and time horizons in our current alignments. I do not approach these proposals lightly, they are rooted in hundreds of conversations and inputs over the last couple of years.”
Lahanas answered two days later that he had reviewed the document “and we can discuss next week when I return.” There are no additional records provided about the follow-up discussion. Bacon has not answered ELi’s questions about the draft proposal.
ELi also became aware after publication of this morning’s ELi report that Gregg posted about this draft plan to Facebook last Friday, April 29.
She described the matter as being a case in which “the Mayor offered an idea about departmental organization. He cc’ed me when he sent his idea to former City Manager George Lahanas. George immediately called me asking if I knew anything about it, and I told him it was the first time I’d seen it.”
Gregg went on to say she contacted Bacon who “just wanted to start a conversation about it. George and I discussed it during our regular check-in meeting and he expressed his feeling that Mr. Bacon was over reaching [sic] his authority, and I suggested that instead of discussing the plan with him as written he should discuss why the Mayor thought this was a good idea and what problem he thought this would solve and that approaching it from that perspective that might lead to a more productive conversation.”
Gregg said there was never serious discussion of implementing the plan.
“As far as I know,” she wrote, “I’m the only Councilmember that received a copy of it because it didn’t move past the idea stage. Mr. Lahanas basically said ‘Absolutely not,’ and the Mayor dropped it.
“All of the Councilmembers have big ideas about how we could possibly improve the city. Some of them gain traction and most of them don’t. I have floated ideas of similar scale past the City Manager with similar results, basically ‘Yeah, that’s not a good idea for xyz reasons.’ The major difference seems to be that no one has ever accused me of some kind of hostile take over. Freedom to discuss good and bad ideas should be part of the process.”
Gregg did not mention Cummins in her communication, framing the plan as Bacon’s idea, although Cummins has now taken full credit for the draft. (Cummins only publicly identified himself as the author last night.) She also did not address the claim that the matter – and how Bacon handled it – was causing distress among city staff, although she said she wishes she had addressed the matter sooner.
Gregg concluded, “In summary: one Councilmember had an idea. It didn’t have any support from either me or George and it went to the graveyard of failed plans…and recently it has arisen from the dead. Let’s all put it to rest shall we?”
Also released in today’s FOIA response is an April 11 email from Dempsey to Interim City Manager Talifarro, attaching Cummins’ draft plan as it was conveyed by Bacon to Lahanas.
Dempsey wrote, “Per our conversation last week, please see the attached document. This was given to me by a staff member who asked that they not be identified for fear of retaliation. After reading this, I better understand some of the concerns and fears being expressed by staff.”
On April 12, ELi received a message from the anonymous complainant(s) telling ELi to FOIA the complaint.
On April 14, Dempsey forwarded his April 11 message to Talifarro, writing, “Per our conversation, resending so it’s at the top of your inbox.”