Last night, East Lansing’s City Council chose four law firms to interview for the position of City Attorney. They are Foster Swift, Clark Hill, Rosati Schultz, and George Brookover. A total of eight firms had applied.
Council will conduct the interviews on Thursday, Sept. 3, at a meeting starting at 6 p.m. The plan is to ask all the interviewees a series of standardized questions and then to ask individualized questions.
At that meeting, Council may select the firm with whom it wishes to negotiate a contract. Alternatively, that could happen at a later meeting. The decision must be made in public, under Michigan’s Open Meetings Act.
The current City Attorney is Tom Yeadon of the McGinty firm. His contract was terminated as of October 1 by a 3-2 vote of City Council in July, an action that led to the resignation of two Council members.
As for the four firms chosen last night, Foster Swift was on the short-list of all five Council members, with Clark Hill on the short-list of four (all except Dana Watson’s). So, those two firms were obvious choices for interviews.
Rosati Schultz was given a first-round vote by Ron Bacon, Lisa Babcock, and Aaron Stephens. Jessy Gregg put that firm in her second-round list. This was enough to convince the members of Council to give that firm an interview slot.
As for Brookover, only Babcock and Watson picked him in the first round. But the arguments made by Babcock in favor of Brookover’s local and long knowledge of East Lansing resulted in Bacon changing his mind.
Bacon said that Babcock had provided “color and context” to Brookover’s application, and said it would be a “good courtesy” to give Brookover, the most geographically-local firm to apply, an interview.
Issues of concern to Council about the applications include cost-control, response time, distance from East Lansing (which can add travel costs and delay meetings), and depth of knowledge in municipal law, including the Open Meetings Act.
Gregg and Bacon paid particular attention to the cost structures described in proposals.
At last night’s meeting, Council discussed what specific questions to ask the interviewees next week.
Initially, Watson expressed concern about the idea of asking different questions of different applicants. But Bacon explained that when hiring someone like an external consultant rather than an internal employee, it is appropriate to “ask unique questions.”
Watson proceeded to indicate she wanted to ask the firms, “Does capitalism coexist with environmentalism? And please provide examples in your work.”
To this, Stephens said he thought that “Culture questions are not out of the ballpark, and we might want to add one in,” but he wanted to make sure to ask about pretty common issues for East Lansing, like trying to avoid unnecessary litigation and dealing with big development and tax increment financing (TIF).
Gregg said that she found a “culture” question “very relevant” since East Lansing is currently being sued related to its social justice regulations by Country Mill, the farmers’ market vendor.
Watson also wanted to ask applicants what their firms have done during the national reckoning with racism since the killing of George Floyd by police officers. She also wanted to ask why applicants though the current City Attorney’s contract was terminated. These questions did not make the list of standardized questions.
One series of questions Watson posed did make the list of what will be asked all applicants: “Diversity, equity, and inclusion are not just words in this city. What racial justice work has your firm been involved with? How does diversity show in your firm? How does inclusion matter?”
Gregg said she supported Watson’s notion of asking about the “big cultural realignment” happening, but she also wanted to ask about pandemic public health management.
Gregg said that we are at the point of needing “to have some control over private property and people’s personal behavior,” and she wanted to know what a new counsel would do on these issues. (Those who voted to terminate Yeadon’s contract have said they were not happy with how he handled pandemic responses.)
Babcock wanted to ask about prosecutions and how the new City Attorney would manage that. Yeadon’s firm has been handling prosecution for matters not referred to the County or higher courts.
The plan is to keep each interview to the same length (somewhere around 50 minutes) and to conduct all the interviews at the Sept. 3 meeting.
Citizens will have a chance to make remarks at the meeting during the time set aside for public comments, and written comments can be emailed to City Council.