With Half-Million-Dollar Contract Approved, Foster Swift Firm Becomes East Lansing’s City Attorney

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East Lansing's City Council interviewing members of the Foster Swift law firm on Sept. 3, 2020.

The City of East Lansing will have new lead legal counsel as of October 1.

Following a unanimous vote by City Council on Tuesday night, East Lansing will contract with Foster, Swift, Collins & Smith, P.C. to be the new City Attorney for one year. (See the contract.)

On July 14, the last Council voted 3-2 in July to terminate the contract with City Attorney Tom Yeadon of McGinty, Hitch, Person, Yeadon & Anderson, P.C. as of October 1. That vote prompted the immediate resignations of Mayor Ruth Beier and Council member Mark Meadows. Council subsequently appointed Dana Watson and Ron Bacon. 

On September 3, the newly convened Council voted 4-1 to enter into negotiations on a contract with Foster Swift after soliciting applications for legal services. Only Mayor Pro Tem Jessy Gregg voted against.

After contract negotiations between Foster Swift and attorneys from Keller Thoma – the firm that represents the City on labor contracts and that also represented the City on this matter – Council approved the contract on Tuesday night. 

The new contract’s main feature is a $500,000 annual cost cap, something that Council member Ron Bacon pushed for during discussion of the finalists. Other council members supported the cost cap. 

Before the vote on the contract last night, City Manager George Lahanas provided the Council with a breakdown of how much has been paid to five law firms in the last five fiscal years. That information was not shown to the public; Mayor Aaron Stephens made it available only after the meeting when ELi requested it after hearing Lahanas’ reference to it.

That breakdown shows the City has spent over $3 million in total over the last five fiscal years. It is not clear whether that material includes all legal costs incurred by the City during that period.

That data shows that Yeadon’s firm was paid about $515,000 in the last fiscal year. Under the new contract with Foster Swift, it is possible for the City to pay Foster Swift more than $500K for the year, but not without the “express written approval” of City Council.

The $500,000 cost cap includes only the services previously provided by Yeadon’s office, and not all of the legal representation needed by the City. Under the new contract, bond counsel, civil litigation, tax tribunal work, and labor services will not count towards the cost cap and will be billed separately.

Currently, the City has separate contracts for those specific areas of legal representation, though some of the thought behind now hiring a bigger firm like Foster Swift was that they could cover most or all the Cities legal matters, consolidating services, creating efficiencies and better oversight, and saving money.

That issue got discussed on Tuesday, along with the cost cap. 

City Manager George Lahanas noted that litigation, in particular, can be very expensive and would be the most likely scenario under which Council gives permission to spend more than $500,000 in a year. 

One big civil case against the City, he said, could cost upwards of $200,000. (The Country Mill lawsuit appears on track to cost almost $300,000.)

As for incorporating the other legal services into Foster Swift’s role, multiple Council members and Lahanas noted the one-year term of the contract allows for a chance to retool and modify the contract in the not too distant future.

Council members asked Lahanas to keep track of the monthly costs of legal services to see if they’re going to avoid, meet, or eclipse the cost cap. This is so they can get a better idea of what legal services are actually costing.

Yesterday’s meeting counted as Yeadon’s last. Lahanas briefly thanked him, and Yeadon in turn thanked the City staff, saying they had “literally they made my job as easy as it possibly could be because of their talents and their hard work and their abilities.” 

Yeadon particularly thanked East Lansing’s police and fire officers. He also thanked Ruth Beier and Mark Meadows for their “extraordinary show of support” and “for their integrity and willingness to push back against false narratives.”

According to the City Charter, the City Council is responsible for the contract of City Attorney as an independent contractor and also for hiring and firing the City Manager as a City employee. Last night, Council voted to extend Lahanas’s contract through June 2024. They also supported Lahanas’s choice to hire Kim Johnson as the new Chief of Police.

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