The City of East Lansing Keeps Withholding Public Information: When Will Things Change?

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There’s a nearly two-week-old story that ELi plans to cover — and wanted to cover more immediately — but can’t. At least not yet. 

Remember how East Lansing Public Library part-time workers were organizing and pushing to get a unionized contract with the library? 

Well, a contract was approved by a simple resolution of the library Board of Trustees at their Nov. 17 meeting. ELi was at that meeting and at that point requested a copy of the now-approved contract in order to report in a complete and substantive manner.

But we were told by East Lansing Library Director Kristin Shelley that it needed to be “cleaned up” to address some typos and to make the contract language gender-neutral before ELi could see it. We asked her if she would at least confirm what the union reps told us about the specifics in the contract. She would not.

To date, we still have not seen a copy of this public record. And so, we can’t tell you what’s in it, even though it has already taken effect. This is akin to the City passing a law and not letting us see the contents until they “clean up the typos.”

Yet this public contract being withheld from public view fits with patterns and practices ELi has encountered frequently in our reporting on the City of East Lansing. Whether it be a claim about needing to make a contract look spiffy, inconsistent reasoning for denying public records requests, or outright obfuscation, the net effect is the same: A lack of transparency, and thus an unnecessary uphill climb in our efforts to report on what your local government is doing.

Council member Lisa Babcock and Mayor Pro Tem Jessy Gregg ran in part on the mantle of ensuring government transparency. Gregg specifically contrasted herself with former Mayor Mark Meadows in the 2019 race, assuring voters she valued transparency. Babcock also positioned herself as an advocate of transparency when she ran in the same race.

And recently-elected Council member George Brookover has legally represented ELi in Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuits against the City of East Lansing, arguing for us that the City has been unreasonable in its withholding of information about policing and a major private-public land deal.

But still, we struggle.

To Babcock’s credit, she has sometimes pushed for transparency where it was lacking, as with the eBay land sale where some material was finally released, and the case of a man falsely accused of sexual assault.

Still, the persistent lack of transparency and struggles to access to public information spurred ELi’s Publisher and Executive Director Alice Dreger to address the issue head-on at the City Council meeting on Nov. 16, as the newest Council got down to business.

“I’m just here to plead for transparency,” Dreger said. “Every City Council I meet thinks they’re gonna do it. And it’s not that they don’t do it because they’re bad people. And it’s not that they don’t do it because they don’t believe in it. It is that they don’t do it because they start doing the business of the City and they think there’s stuff that they need to keep secret. Or they’re asked by City staff not to spill beans on something because it’s awkward, or it’s inconvenient. So, I’m here to ask you: Be different.” 

Dreger urged the Council not to act like they are running a corporation when they are, in fact, running a democratic government that is supposed to be open to the people it serves and from whom it draws its revenue.

Newly-elected Mayor Ron Bacon did address Dreger’s points shortly after, saying the following: “Just lastly, kind of to address the question of transparency. I just want to kind of separate a few things there. I don’t think all issues of transparency, if it’s individual error or issues around staff or around things of that nature versus, you know, attempting to shirk or hide things. I think what happens a little bit, and kind of corporate things were mentioned — corporations tend to use the word ‘iterate’ a lot and people tend to not want to iterate.” 

Dylan Lees for ELi

Mayor Ron Bacon being sworn in at the Nov. 9, 2021, meeting of City Council.

Bacon continued in his response: “I think that happens with transparency a little bit and I think you have to separate; some things aren’t transparent — was it a staffing issue? Was it a communication issue? There’s different levels to that and I think that can get a little bit hostile and sometimes that does cause a communication breakdown on some of that stuff. So, I think we can all be a little bit more selective with using certain words that kind of trigger some combativeness. So I think there’s a little bit more to that, it’s a little bit more nuanced than that, so I just ask for a little bit of civility. If it tends to be something more around staffing or the inability to just access something or time-bound, that may be different than issues of transparency or attempting to circumvent sharing information.”

With the above context, and still no release of the part-time library workers’ contract, we’d like to walk through some other recent examples where our independent reporting has been made difficult-to-impossible by a wall of public-record denial.

To continue with the ELPL thread, we’ve been told that the public is not allowed to know who gave the City a $1.5 million cash gift a couple of years ago, money used to help renovate the library.

We wanted to know that information in part to be able to ask the donors what they think of the recently-discovered, significant structural problems costing over a million dollars more at the library. But we also wanted to do the well-established job of journalists: to follow the money and see if that $1.5 million influenced the decision-making of City Manager George Lahanas or other City leaders who knew the donors’ identities. 

Might the donors have had reason to curry favor while wanting to stay anonymous? We’d like to find out for you.

But a public records (FOIA) request from ELi in September 2021 seeking that information was denied under the claim that it was a “library record” exempt from the public records law. The City also claimed that “disclosure of that information in the requested record would result in a clearly unwarranted invasion of the individuals’ privacy.”

ELi appealed the denial to then-Mayor Jessy Gregg, with Dreger writing and pointing out that this information is not a “library record” under the law — it is a financial record — and that allowing $1.5 million to be donated anonymously is an invitation to corruption.

“Regardless, the public has the right to examine the question of whether a seven-figure gift might have resulted in some form of political influence,” Dreger wrote.

ELi’s appeal was denied. In subsequent communication, Gregg told Dreger that Gregg has been told that the donor is a “retired individual with no contracts or other work before the City of East Lansing” and that the gift was part of their estate planning process. 

“I talked to Library Director Kristin Shelley about what details would be acceptable to share while respecting the donor’s wishes for anonymity,” Gregg wrote in an email. “That is the information she shared with me and I trust her enough to sign my name to a document containing that information.”

While that FOIA denial stands out for the size of the donation in question, it’s only the tip of the iceberg of our frustrated efforts.

Take, as another example, the instance of ELi filing a fairly routine FOIA request asking for three days of City Manager George Lahanas’ calendar. 

Dylan Lees for ELi

City Manager George Lahanas at the Nov. 9, 2021, meeting of City Council.

We were tipped off by a City employee that Lahanas had borrowed a City-owned vehicle for a number of days although he has a vehicle stipend/allowance in his contract that pays him to use his own vehicle, regardless of whether or not he is traveling. The goal was to cross reference his calendar with the use of a City-owned vehicle to see if we could verify an extraordinary but legitimate reason for Lahanas needing it. 

That request was denied, with the City claiming Lahanas’s work calendar as City Manager is “private.” 

Yet this does not line up with the City’s own past practices, as ELi was previously provided an entire year of Lahanas’ work calendar under FOIA in early 2019. In that case, the response came back with minor redactions for personal medical appointments — completely reasonably as redactions for privacy under the law — but the same records were released as public documents then. Now, the City claims they’re private.

An example of what was released in 2019 when we requested the City Manager’s calender under FOIA. Today, ELi is being told the calendar is entirely “private.”

Meanwhile, at a recent meeting of East Lansing’s Downtown Development Authority (DDA), the group was discussing the installation of a number of new security cameras downtown. DDA member Luke Hackney asked if the footage from this public right-of-way would be obtainable by the media and all others under FOIA. 

Gregg, who was attending the meeting, answered and said that basically the City would just redact or deny it based on what they consider “private.” But Michigan’s FOIA law allows only a very narrow category of public recordings to be redacted for “privacy” reasons, and footage from these security cameras should be available, similar to police body camera footage.

It’s worth noting that in discussing the cameras, Lahanas told the DDA that in the public right-of-way, where the cameras will be pointed, there is no expectation of privacy.

Beyond FOIA troubles, other issues of transparency have cropped up.

At the first meeting of the Independent Police Oversight Commission, City staff did not provide the required information in use-of-force reports to that newly-empowered body.

As ELi’s Heather Brothers reported: “The names of the officers involved in the use-of-force incidents were not included in the report. Several commissioners pointed out that the absence of that information was in violation of Ordinance 1503, which established the Police Oversight Commission and set certain guidelines on how the Commission would function.” 

Dylan Lees for ELi

Officers enter the East Lansing Police Department.

According to the language of the ordinance, “The [use-of-force] report shall include at a minimum, a brief description of the incident and the names and demographic data about the officers and members of the public involved in the incident.”

Another good example comes with the “confidential legal opinion” from Foster Swift, currently the lame-duck City Attorneys, on the proposed rental conversion program in Chesterfield Hills. That legal opinion was finally released, but only after a handful of local residents came and voiced their distaste with the secrecy on the matter when it essentially involved their homes.

Chesterfield Hills resident Mark Terry asked then, in September 2021: “What’s the hold up, and what’s so confidential about a memo? A legal opinion? Why is there a legal opinion that I can’t see?”

Those questions still apply.

Today is #GivingTuesday and, if you appreciate our work, we would appreciate if you would donate TODAY to support ELi! Find all the easy ways to give by clicking here!

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