This week’s (July 11) edition of the ELi’s East Lansing Insider podcast consists of a half-hour interview that ELi Managing Editor Emily Joan Elliott and I did with former Mayor Mark Meadows. We decided to interview Meadows because we realized we had many questions piling up as it has become clear that he has remained very active in local politics despite his resignation from Council last July. He has, for example, become president of his neighborhood, Abbott Woods, and has been attending and participating in meetings of the Council of Neighborhood Presidents – somewhat awkwardly for Mayor Aaron Stephens, who now runs those meetings.
Because this week was supposed to be a week off for ELi’s editorial staff, including me, we recorded this interview on June 30, well in advance of the air date. As you’ll hear if you listen to the episode when it becomes available this Friday, we talked in part with Meadows about the upcoming City Council election. We asked him about who he is endorsing – spoiler alert: it’s Dana Watson and Chuck Grigsby – and Meadows said that he has heard that local attorney George Brookover is running. I responded honestly on the recording that that was news to us, and that I would need to follow-up, because Brookover has been representing ELi on two legal cases we are bringing against the City of East Lansing under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
Following the recording session, I contacted Brookover and found out that he is, indeed, planning to file for Council election. In fact, we can now see from the Ingham County Clerk’s records that he formed his campaign committee on June 18. When I found out on June 30 that he was running, I explained to Brookover that ELi has a policy of cutting ties with anyone who is actively working on running for East Lansing City Council, School Board, or a 54B District Court judgeship, because it is not appropriate for us – a nonpartisan news organization – to have a financial or representational relationship with anyone running for or occupying one of those seats. Those offices are our core election beats.
While a person may not have formally filed, if we know they are running in the sense of organizing a campaign for one of those offices, we cut ties. For example, we cut ties with Erik Altmann and Jessy Gregg who were both reporters for us when they decided to run for Council.
The consequence of all this is that I have spent a chunk of what was supposed to be a week off scrambling to find a new lawyer for the twin FOIA cases on which Brookover was our representative. As usual, I’ve had excellent help and support of people in the community in this endeavor, and I thank the people who have been helping us.
The decision to bring these cases was made months ago – before developer Scott Chappelle filed a lawsuit against ELi and me. This decision was not made lightly by me and ELi’s Board of Directors, but followed mounting difficulty in doing our job of reporting on the East Lansing city government, including the East Lansing Police Department. It was made in the hopes of ultimately saving a lot of money, time, and aggravation in our reporting work.
By way of background, the first case involves a denial by the City of East Lansing for a FOIA request made by our reporter Andrew Graham who was seeking to understand the finances and legal details of the 40-year lease that the owners of the downtown Marriot Hotel and attached office space have had with the City. That redevelopment project is called “University Place,” and the land on which it sits owned by the City of East Lansing. According to the original deal, the City has been obtaining only $10 a year for the land, which is at this point worth millions of dollars.
The original ten-dollar-per-year lease is ending soon, and there are questions about what the City will do next. So, Andrew was tasked by our editorial staff with trying to figure out for our readers the history of this lease deal. But the City denied Andrew’s FOIA request, claiming it was “too broad.” (It wasn’t.)
The second case involves a FOIA request filed by Emily related to records of use-of-force by the East Lansing Police Department from Nov. 28, 2020, through Jan. 18, 2021, a seven-week window that we have reason to be very curious about. As with Andrew’s filing, we turned to FOIA because we couldn’t seem to get the records any other way.
Emily’s straightforward request to ELPD was first denied outright as “very broad.” (It was not.) She appealed, and Mayor Aaron Stephens then agreed to order the ELPD to turn over at least some of the records, but in doing so he demanded we pay over $5,400 for what are supposed to be public records. That’s an outrageous sum for what we asked, and we know we are not alone in being asked for outrageous sums from ELPD.
In both cases, in consultation with Brookover, we felt it likely ELi would obtain relief in court and that we might even recoup what it would cost through court action. We felt certain the investment of money had become necessary, and we had donors who specifically offered to help fund this attempt. Our goal was not only to get the materials we are owed under public records law, but to make what felt at this point like a critical investment to hopefully turn around the ship of the City Manager’s approach to transparency.
In seven years of operation as a public service news organization, we have never before taken legal action against the City under FOIA. But under this relatively inexperienced Council (in which members have on average only 20 months’ experience) and the new City Attorney of Foster Swift, governmental “transparency” has gotten very bad, making our job of bringing the facts harder and harder. We know others are facing the same struggles, because they show us the unreasonable responses they have been receiving.
Because several members of this Council have claimed to be very pro-transparency, particularly around policing, I had hoped that the Council might choose to settle these two cases with us: give us what we’re owed and agree to reforms that follow the letter and spirit of public-records law. But it has now become evident that at least some members of this Council have apparently not even been informed of the FOIA suits by the City Manager or City Attorney.
The ELi team has been trying to push for transparency in part so that the Council itself can be informed about what the City is up to, as Council makes decisions for the people. We want everyone to be informed, but it seems especially important for Council to be informed in a prompt fashion. But this has been a struggle.
For example, I have been trying for months to obtain quarterly litigation status reports from the City. These are reports that City Attorney Tom Yeadon used to give to City Council, explaining what the status was of various lawsuits in which the City is embroiled. In 2018, ELi fought to get the quarterly litigation status reports released so the public could see them, and then-mayor Mark Meadows ruled in our favor on a FOIA appeal. Meadows acknowledged that, under the law, the City had to release the quarterly litigation status reports to us, redacting only what was truly necessary to redact, not the whole thing.
But since Mike Homier of Foster Swift became the lead City Attorney, there have apparently been no litigation status reports to Council. That means that most if not all Council members don’t know about all the lawsuits the City is embroiled in. Following on my petitions at City Council for the release of such reports, Council member Lisa Babcock has repeatedly requested that such reports be issued and released. But so far, we’ve seen nothing.
This speaks to the more general problem I’ve described above, about transparency at the City getting worse since Meadows and Ruth Beier resigned last July and a new City Attorney was hired. And it speaks to ELi’s decision to bring the suits, to try to fix the problems.
I’m not yet sure exactly what is going to happen with these suits. Part of the decision will have to be made by ELi’s Board of Directors, which has the fiduciary responsibility for our organization. That includes balancing our mission to push for and bring the facts with the reality about our resource limitations. As I said, these two FOIA suits, with Brookover’s representation, were launched before the Chappelle suit.
We will let you know what happens with all this, but for now, I wanted to make sure that you know that, when I learned from Meadows that Brookover is throwing his hat in the ring for City Council, we followed our standard approach and started acting immediately to cut ties with Brookover. Because we have the two cases that had already begun on the court clocks, this is not a simple situation, but we’ll resolve it asap. That’s why I’m working during what was supposed to be a rare week off from ELi. Again, I appreciate everyone who has helped me in the transition of representation on these cases.
As always, we will endeavor to bring you balanced and informative coverage of the City Council election. You can find links to our reporter Jack Harrison’s profiles of candidates at our election information page; expect a profile on Brookover and anyone else who decides to file in the coming weeks. As a reminder, the filing deadline for candidacy is July 20.
How can you hear the full interview with Meadows? The ELi Insider podcast broadcasts on Sunday mornings at 9 a.m. on 89FM Impact radio, and it posts online on the Friday before. Stay tuned to ELi for the link to listen to this week’s edition. (Update: Click here for the podcast.)
Please contact us with any questions or concerns you have.