Results of a Freedom of Information Act request aimed at finding out who has made a move to run for East Lansing’s City Council turned up both information on who has pulled nominating petitions and something else: records of text messages showing that the City Clerk has been alerting the City Manager to keep him personally apprised in real-time when anyone expresses interest in running for Council in November.
Follow-up questions to Council on this matter also indicate that those currently sitting on Council are getting special access to information that was denied to the press by the Clerk’s office. One Council appointee who is herself running for election says she has been getting information about her competitors from City staff simply by asking.
By contrast, ELi had no option but to use the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and wait for results to get this “public” information.
Who are the seven people who have “pulled” Council nominating petitions so far?
The City Clerk’s page on official candidacy shows that appointed Council member Dana Watson has completed the paperwork for candidacy. She is running for a four-year seat.
It also shows that Chuck Grigsby has done the same. Grigsby is currently the Chair of both the Human Rights Commission and the Study Committee on an Independent Police Oversight Commission.
Council appointee Ron Bacon has pulled petitions to run, although it isn’t clear whether he will run for the 2-year or 4-year seat. Dan Bollman, who is the current Chair of the Planning Commission, pulled petitions and confirmed on Thursday that he is running for a 4-year seat.
Stephanie Grimes, who had been a candidate for School Board in 2017, pulled petitions, but we are not sure for which seat. Downtown Development Authority and Brownfield Redevelopment Authority Chair Peter Dewan picked up the candidate packet, but he told ELi on Wednesday that he is not, in fact, running for the office.
The seventh person to pick up materials is Casey Prange who, according to a text from City Clerk Jennifer Shuster to City Manager George Lahanas, “picked up three candidate packets on behalf of three unknown individuals.” Prange has not responded to a request from ELi for information about for whom Prange is working.
Why did ELi file a FOIA request to see who is running for Council?
ELi seeks information about possible candidates in advance of the July filing deadline so that people who are considering running can see what choices the voters will otherwise face on the ballot. We are also interested in finding out for voters who is working for whom on Council campaigns, as that information can help voters understand the political positioning of various candidates.
In ELi’s past experience, the City Clerk’s office simply handed over to anyone the list of people who had come to ask for the materials required for declaring candidacy. But this year, when ELi asked for that information on April 20, we received this response:
“Seven candidate packets have been distributed by the City Clerk’s Office; however, we don’t plan to release those names as we cannot confirm that the individuals picking up those packets were picking them up for themselves or for other unknown potential candidates.”
Knowing the information is considered “public” under the law, ELi filed a FOIA request on May 12, asking for:
“Information on all individuals who have asked for nominating petitions for the East Lansing City Council race of Nov. 2021, specifically the information that the Clerk’s office has in its possession in conjunction with the pulling of these petitions, including but not limited to name, contact information, and whether the petitions were for the 2-year seat or a 4-year seat. A simple list is fine.”
In this case, because we were forced to use FOIA, our request turned up more than we expected to learn.
On May 19, City Clerk Jennifer Shuster fulfilled ELi’s FOIA request. That’s how we came to see a series of texts from Shuster to City Manager George Lahanas in which she updated him in real-time about who had expressed interest and pulled petitions, starting in January.
When we asked Council members for comment on this, ELi found that some Council members, including Watson, have asked City staff for updates on who is considering running for Council – information that was denied to ELi reporters. The FOIA response also shows that the City staff person whose job is “Assistant to City Council” has been receiving updates on who is running.
Asked for comment, Council member Lisa Babcock finds this troubling. She does not think that City staff should be tapped for information about candidates that the Clerk’s office did not make publicly available until ELi’s FOIA request was fulfilled. She also said she found the apparent expectation on the part of Lahanas that the City Clerk keep him personally apprised in real-time “unprofessional and amateurish conduct” in the governmental realm.
Babcock added, “It is especially upsetting that he is spending his time in this manner when we have so many issues – policing and the budget, among others – which require the City Manager’s full attention.”
But, replying to request for comment, the other four members of Council did not object to Lahanas wanting Shuster to text him updates.
And, in fact, Dana Watson, who was appointed to Council and is intending to run for a seat, said she has been asking the Clerk and other staff to tell her who else will be on the ballot that has her name.
Ron Bacon, who was also appointed and is apparently running, did not say whether he’s been asking staff about who is running against him, but he did say he had no problem with the system whereby Shuster is alerting Lahanas.
Said Mayor Pro Tem Jessy Gregg, “I frequently ask George if anyone new has filed since I talked to him last, so for all I know he’s asked for updates because he knows Council is curious about it and he’s keeping us updated.”
Responding to our questions about this, Mayor Aaron Stephens said he saw no problem with the inside-track sharing, even after being told ELi had been denied the information.
Stephens decided to contact former City Clerk Marie Wicks to get her take on the record and sent it on to us. Wicks responded that, in her experience, Lahanas and his predecessor Ted Staton wanted to know who was running and wrote, “I do think that it’s important and very positive that George [Lahanas] is taking an interest in prospective partners in East Lansing’s leadership and decision-making and fail to see how any of this is an issue.”
In her account, Wicks did not describe members of Council who were themselves running for office having special, early access to information denied to the media (short of a FOIA request.) In ELi’s experience, when she was Clerk, Wicks simply released the material upon request whenever asked, never any holding back.
Interested in running for Council? Check out this report from ELi.