Suddenly the City Attorney’s Contract Is In Question?

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Gary Caldwell for ELi

City Attorney Tom Yeadon at the Council meeting of March 11, 2020.

The East Lansing City Council’s agenda for this coming Tuesday holds a surprise item: an out-of-cycle and unexplained discussion of Tom Yeadon’s contract for the job of East Lansing City Attorney.

That contract – which involves representing the City on everything from drafting zoning ordinances to prosecuting certain crimes – is currently worth $650,000 per year.

In June 2019, the last City Council voted to give Yeadon a new three-year contract with a 25% raise. But that vote was split 3-2.

It appears possible that there is now a 3-2 majority to revise or even end the contract – something that would not be too surprising, since Mayor Pro Tem Aaron Stephens voted against Yeadon’s contract renewal last June, and newcomer Council members Jessy Gregg and Lisa Babcock indicated during the election that they would want to revisit Yeadon’s contract.

In fact, it was Stephens who moved last June to look for other firms that could take over the job of City Attorney. At that time, after Council interviewed Yeadon and two other candidates for the job, the result was a contentious 3-2 vote in favor of keeping Yeadon.

Ruth Beier, Mark Meadows, and Erik Altmann voted to grant Yeadon the new three-year contract at 25 percent more money than the previous one.

During that discussion, Altmann said the City was getting “excellent legal representation” from Yeadon “at a very fair price.” Altmann said he was “proud that as a community we have decided to pay” more for Yeadon’s services.

Meadows named as a benefit the relatively lower cost of Yeadon’s services, and both Meadows and Beier had praise for Yeadon’s work and professionalism.

In opposition were Aaron Stephens and Shanna Draheim, who indicated they were ready for new representation.

A few months later, in November, the renewal of Yeadon’s contract was specifically named as an election issue among a number ELi reader-voters.

In that election, Draheim did not run again, and challengers Babcock and Gregg pushed Altmann out of his seat. (See the election results here.)

Yeadon’s work has been controversial on a number of fronts.

Most significant in terms of public discussions has been Yeadon’s role in the retaining wall federal lawsuit, which focused on the failure to disclose Yeadon’s financial conflict of interest in an application for federal funding.

Yeadon and his law partners benefitted financially from a $150,000 rebuild of a sidewalk and retaining wall along their private property, a rebuild funded entirely with tax dollars when most property owners are required to pay part or all of similar projects.

Yeadon threatened to sue ELi if we did not retract all of our reporting on the retaining wall case. (We did not retract any of it, and he did not sue.)

More recently, Yeadon’s decision to threaten a man with arrest for building an approved driveway came under fire. Council ended up settling that lawsuit in January of this year.

Then, at the May 26, 2020, Council meeting, Babcock and Stephens questioned Yeadon over a different case that involved jailing a man for a zoning violation, indicating unease with Yeadon’s approach.

Babcock has also recently questioned whether there is racial bias in prosecution in East Lansing. (Yeadon’s contract includes having members of his firm act as local prosecutors for the City.) She raised the concerns following public questions about why a white man and a black man seemed to be treated differently in terms of arrest and prosecution following an altercation at the downtown 7-Eleven.

Yeadon was also criticized for what the Lansing State Journal deemed “the bureaucratic collapse” of the St. Anne Lofts projects on Albert Ave. In that case – which involved a partial floor collapse during the build – construction was done without the proper permits, a fifth floor was added without approval, and one construction application before Council was presented in the name of a company that had earlier been dissolved, with Yeadon telling Council they could proceed without a legal applicant.

Last month, East Lansing’s Downtown Development Authority voted unanimously to seek new counsel for big redevelopment deals.

The City Attorney and the City Manager are the only City jobs for which the City Council is responsible for hiring and firing. A simple majority of Council – three votes – determines who will hold these jobs.

The agenda item provides no information about what to expect other than to indicate that Babcock will be the point person for the start of the discussion.

The agenda also includes appointments of a number of people to the Study Committee on an Independent Police Oversight Commission, a revision of Babcock’s proposal for keeping an eye on complaints made against police while the Oversight Commission is formed, the request to allow Sunday hours at Coolidge Court, and more.

Want to weigh in on anything at City Council? You can write to them by email at council@cityofeastlansing.com and/or speak at public comment early in the meeting by calling 312-626-6799 and entering Meeting ID 819-4613-5729. (You do not need a participant ID.)

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