The East Lansing Human Rights Commission (HRC) feels it has exhausted its options in an investigation into landlord DTN in a civil rights complaint and has now elevated the matter to City Council.
On Monday (June 12), following a closed session in which commissioners spoke with City Attorney Anthony Chubb, the commission returned and voted unanimously to ask Council to use its full powers to investigate DTN, specifically mentioning the Council’s subpoena power.
The decision escalates a saga that began in August 2022 when Maria Yokich-Grebner and her uncle Mark Grebner submitted a complaint against DTN. A DTN representative told Yokich-Grebner her lease would not be renewed because she received rental assistance from the federal Covid Emergency Rental Assistance (CERA) program. Discriminating against renters because they obtain government assistance violates a city civil rights ordinance.
The Commission said that, since receiving the complaint on Aug. 22, 2022, it has had Chubb send a letter to DTN and received a response. (This correspondence was not previously revealed.) The Commission identified Jessica Garcia, the DTN agent who told Yokich-Grebner in writing her lease would not be renewed, as a key witness. However, Garcia has refused to participate in the commission’s investigation and ignored texts and calls.
Two months ago, ELi reached Garcia using the same information Grebner provided to the city attorney. Garcia told ELi she had given Yokich-Grebner the information she was instructed by DTN to give, essentially confirming the complaint made to the HRC.
A statement read by newly-elected HRC Chair Karen Hoene following Monday’s closed session said the Commission felt it had exhausted its power and is requesting Council’s assistance in the investigation. The Commission requested Council use, “All the means necessary, including their subpoena power, to continue to gather information pertinent to this investigation.”
Issuing a subpoena would be a rare action taken by Council and represent a big step in the investigation into the local housing giant. In nearly 10 years of reporting for East Lansing, ELi has not seen a case of the Council using its subpoena power for any reason.
Speaking to ELi following the meeting, Grebner said he was surprised to hear about all the steps the HRC had taken to investigate DTN, because he was not kept in the loop throughout the process. Grebner is an Ingham County Commissioner and attorney. He has extraordinary levels of experience in local government and local and state law with regard to civil rights.
During the public comment portion of the meeting before the closed session, Grebner urged the HRC to work more robustly with complainants when investigating large institutions.
“You should set up procedures which are easy for people to navigate who are not represented by an attorney-uncle who has been a 50-year resident of the city and has involved himself in 25-consecutive City Council elections,” Grebner said.
HRC Chair Liz Miller to step down, as Karen Hoene and Julia Walters step up.
Members of the HRC thanked departing Chair Liz Miller for her service and unanimously voted Vice Chair Karen Hoene to take over the role. Julia Walters was voted to be the new vice chair.
Miller spoke briefly about her work on the HRC and said it was a “privilege, honor and joy” to serve as chair.
Other members of the HRC used their comments portion of the meeting to thank Miller for her work.
“You’ve been on the commission since I’ve started, you’ve been a mentor to me,” Hoene said. “I’m really going to miss you.”
Councilmember Dana Watson, who serves as liaison to the HRC, said she admires Miller’s work as Pastor of the Edgewood United Church, as well as her work on the HRC.
“I think you’re a saint,” Watson said. “If I was Christian, I would have gone to your church.”
HRC continues to seek to meet with the parent of Black child falsely accused of vandalizing the library.
Commissioners said they are continuing to seek to meet with Stelisha Foreman, the mother of a Black teenager who was wrongfully accused by ELPL Director Kristin Shelley of lighting a fire in the East Lansing Public Library (ELPL) bathroom.
Shelley called the police on the teen and his brother in January when they refused to leave the library when Shelley told them to. It was eventually determined the child was not the individual captured on video in October when some burned materials were found in the bathroom.
Walters said the HRC is taking Foreman’s complaint “very seriously” and the Commission has reached out to Foreman, but have been unable to meet due to her busy schedule. The HRC will send multiple members to meet with Foreman as soon as they find an appropriate date.
“We will be ready and willing [to meet] as soon as she gives us a date,” Commissioner Kayla Gomez said.
Foreman’s complaint was not immediately brought to the HRC following the filing of it. DEI Director Elaine Hardy (the city staff to the HRC) brought the complaint forward to the commission at the second meeting after it was filed.
Grebner told ELi he finds it very problematic that Hardy has not informed him when public meetings are being held to discuss his complaint. Foreman previously told ELi she was also not informed of her complaint being on the agenda.
“I spoke to Hardy initially because, for some reason, our case got kinda shuffled,” Foreman told ELi in April. “It was really weird that we hadn’t heard from them. She wasn’t sure why it had happened. They [the HRC] had a meeting the following Monday and I would have been there for that if the case went on the [February] agenda instead of waiting [until March].”