In our continuing coverage of the controversy that has led to City Council hiring an independent investigator following an anonymous complaint, I reported Wednesday on comments about the matter made at the Council meeting the day before. My report included the comments of one resident who blamed ELi for “crazy rumors that have developed since ELi posted the so-called [governmental reorganization] plan on a publicly available site.”
That commentator, Nell Kuhnmuench, added, “The letter and the fallout from publishing it and giving it so much credibility appears on its face to be racially motivated, and that is most disappointing and disturbing.”
Mayor Ron Bacon has also made remarks indicating the anonymous complaint and responses to it have been motivated by racism. He’s suggested that ELi’s use of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) in our information gathering has represented some kind of problematic approach.
Talking this over, ELi Managing Editor Julie Seraphinoff and I came to the conclusion it would help to provide more information and context.
We realize the current administration feels like they are under the lens because ELi is looking into claims first made public in the anonymous complaint.
And we get why some people think maybe the anonymous complaint should be ignored; there are parts of it one can immediately see are sloppy or inaccurate.
For example, in criticizing the mayor for his allegedly “duplicitous” treatment of East Lansing police, the complaint refers to a case in which “a suspect…pulled a gun on ELPD officers.” That’s the case of DeAnthony VanAtten, and no videos we have seen indicate he “pulled a gun on officers” (which implies he was aiming a gun at officers). He threw away his gun as officers were chasing him.
But there are parts of the anonymous complaint that seem to suggest some explanation about why so many senior managers in the city government have quit. Because those possible explanations in the complaint – overreach on the part of the mayor and DEI Director Elaine Hardy in particular – accord with what sources are telling us, we have been using the complaint to try to find out what facts we can establish.
If you’re a regular ELi reader, you already know that, using FOIA, we’ve obtained an early-January email former City Manager George Lahanas sent to Council objecting to unnamed council members allegedly violating the City Charter, specifically interfering with the day-to-day operations of the city and usurping his powers. That’s significant. That complaint is hardly anonymous.
Then there’s the case of the eight-page draft plan for reorganization of city operations, a plan that sketched out an idea for putting the DEI Department in charge of many city services and projects. Former city employee Adam Cummins let ELi know early last week he authored the plan. FOIA has shown that Mayor Bacon took this plan to Lahanas for his consideration, writing, “I do not approach these proposals lightly, they are rooted in hundreds of conversations and inputs over the last couple of years.”
The case of that draft plan (its inception and transmission) looks to be one instance of the city’s organizational system being upended – possibly in violation of the City Charter. The anonymous complaint said this document and how it got to the city manager’s office was a reason behind some of the staff stress that led to resignations. Notably, FOIA has shown a message from Interim Planning Director Tim Dempsey to Interim City Manager Randy Talifarro saying, “After reading this [plan], I better understand some of the concerns and fears being expressed by staff.”
There’s also the issue, which ELi has verified, of Mayor Bacon asking Cummins’ boss about getting Cummins to rescind his resignation. Council members, as stated in the City Charter, are only to be involved directly in the employment of two people: the city manager and the city attorney.
So, we’re not simply operating from the anonymous complaint, as some are suggesting in commentary.
We’re now operating from documents obtained under FOIA that suggest organizational disarray – disarray that could explain the large numbers of resignations and could violate the Charter, the foundational organizing document of the City of East Lansing’s government.
Because of what we’ve already found, we have been doing more research to find out what we can with regard to all council members’ possible violations of section 7.1.e of the City Charter. That’s the part of the Charter which separates the powers of the legislative branch (Council) from the executive branch (the city’s employees).
Why look into the actions of all five council members when the complaint accuses just a few? We follow the standard journalistic motto of “no fear, no favor.”
If you’re a long-time ELi reader, you know we’ve been making local officials – regardless of ethnicity, race, age, sexual orientation or gender – necessarily uncomfortable for a long time.
We don’t do that on purpose. It’s a side effect of our job.
Here are some examples of what we’ve done before, including some investigations that also started with anonymous tips:
In early 2015, an anonymous tip (a packet of documents left on my front porch) led to what became a years’ long investigation by ELi of health and safety violations at the city’s wastewater treatment plant. Part of that work tracked which supervisors and managers committed violations. Our reporting sometimes led to official statements from Lahanas that we fact-checked.
In 2016, ELi pursued the question of whether Lahanas violated the state’s campaign finance law when he used the city’s publication “Dialog” to encourage voters to vote “yes” on a ballot initiative involving the sale of city land. We published the news when the state found he had broken the law.
In 2017, we asked Councilmember Susan Woods, who was running for reelection, to address allegations she had repeatedly broken ethics rules and laws at the local, state and federal levels. The complaints were brought to us by a reader and, when we checked out the complaints, we saw reason to pursue the story.
In 2018, an anonymous tip led us to find the City Council of East Lansing had settled a federal whistleblower lawsuit that involved a retaining wall built with taxpayer dollars on the city attorney’s private property. We showed that Council, led by Mayor Mark Meadows, had failed to follow state law in voting on the settlement. We also broke the news that the city had admitted fault but failed to release public documents.
In 2020, ELi closely examined the refinancing of the Center City District bonds, showing that city officials and members of the Downtown Development Authority had been led down the wrong path by advisers to that financial deal, a deal which benefitted real estate developers and not the city’s taxpayers. That reporting led the Council to get new bond advisers, whose work we have also watched very closely.
More recently, in 2022, we reported on the possible violation of local and state laws when, in 2021, the city used public funds and city staff to support then-Mayor Jessy Gregg’s “fiber to fashion” festival outside Seams, her downtown business.
Our job is to be the fourth estate – a democratic branch that provides checks and balances on the government.
We try to look closely no matter who we are reporting on – whether it’s the City Council, the School Board, the Downtown Development Authority, or some other public agency in East Lansing. We don’t set out to make public officials uncomfortable or to make them look bad (or good). We just try hard to be watchdogs, because we believe this is a critical public service for any community.
We know sometimes what we research and publish upsets people. The ELi team tries hard to follow the motto of “First, do no unnecessary harm.”
But sometimes keeping the government accountable to the people means causing discomfort. We appreciate those of you who support this work and hold us to the highest journalistic standards.