East Lansing Info’s publisher – Alice Dreger – explains why it can still be pretty hard to “follow the money” in East Lansing:
East Lansing Info’s publisher – Alice Dreger – explains why it can still be pretty hard to “follow the money” in East Lansing:
6 thoughts on “East Lansing Government’s Record on Transparency? Failures Abound.”
The initial email, below, was sent to me (to be published to PR) by Alice yesterday…
since sending it out an hour or so ago, Alice has provided the following update:
Last night at city Council, I asked Mark Meadows questions on camera. He answered that he got the letter on paper from staff, read it, and gave it back to staff. He could not answer the question why it was not shared with the rest of council. He said he did not know why it was not in Council Communications. And he said he did not know why it was not given to me under the freedom of information act.
So you might just want to add this to that post now. City Manager George Lahanas was absent, so it was not possible for me to ask him to answer those questions.
But Mark Meadows seems to think this is the fault of the staff.
I wish to add a bit of history to the EL “transparency” issue. As PR readers most likely know, I am the “Relator” in the City’s “Retaining-Wall-Gate” False Claims Act case. Much of my case is based on documents that I received from the City via FOIA. But, here’s the twist: When I requested documents that predated the CDBG application for HUD funds to replace the retaining wall in front of the Law firm’s building, I received the “no documents exist” response from the City. My Appeal of this FOIA denial was sent to George Lahanas (who was, at that time, “in charge” of FOIA appeals) and took the form of –What? Are you claiming that the City did not have even one piece of paper that was created before the CDBG Application for funding was sent to HUD? His reply: yes, that is correct, the City doesn’t have even one piece of paper that pre-dated the CDBG application.
Well, I knew that was bullshit!! So, my “Qui Tam” lawyer’s assistant submitted a nearly identical FOIA request to the City (they had no idea who he was), and, lo-and-behold, the City had literally 1000s of pages of documents which we reviewed. So, it should be fairly evident to everyone who is reading this that “transparency” (like beauty) is in the eye of the beholder.
One more example of the City’s lack of transparency regarding “retaining-wall-gate”: The DOJ, as part of its investigation into this fraud, sent the City a subpoena for documents, and this subpoena was brought to the Council by Tom Yeadon (which is a clear conflict of interest). Well, to make this part of the story as short as I can, when I requested a copy of the DOJ’s subpoena through FOIA, the City, despite Council Minutes to the contrary, simply denied that it existed.
On a side note to this FOIA-subpoena issue, the DOJ also refused to provide me with a copy of the subpoena, nor would they share with me (or my lawyer) even “one piece of paper” that they received in response to the subpoena. The refusal of the DOJ to share documents with me is part of the pending Motion in this case (it’s not over by a long shot!!).
Relator in the “Retaining-Wall-Gate” FCA suit against the City
About a decade ago, back when Meadows’ buddy, “Ted Almighty” Staton, had LSJ and most everyone still convinced he was the world’s greatest city manager, I discovered that messages I was sending to city hall, concerning broken sidewalks, a blighted house (which I later learned was part of the quid pro quo brownfield), etc., were not getting through. This was before I had joined the City Center II whistleblowers and started calling for Staton to be fired, and was just a citizen complaining about neighborhood issues. Later, I became aware of allegations of repression against the State News for investigative reporting about CC II and other disturbing stuff. When I became active in exposing misconduct in city hall, there were people in the business community who were afraid to speak out who fed me information. I also knew people active, or formerly-active, in local Democratic Party politics, who despised Meadows for what they considered his power plays against fellow Democrats—I got an earful when I gave Meadows luke-warm support over Triplett when he ran for Council in 2015 to rehabilitate himself, claiming he wanted to be an elder statesman not the same old ethically-challenged politician who had been defeated for judge.
With CC II, St. Anne’s Lofts, etc., staff had motives for secrecy, because when you screw up that badly, you should be fired. Of course, with Ted Almighty, any hint anyone thought East Lansing was not a great place to live, was like insulting the King of Thailand (or wondering about cheating at golf). With public-private development, there is an ideology that private secrets take precedent over the public right to know, which is reason enough to eliminate public-private partnerships, since (given the history) the public has to assume sleazy deals Trump public interest.
With the missing petition in support of retaining the local court, I have to wonder about any motive for city staff to lose it. Meadows seems to want court consolidation. I don’t know if he is motivated out of revenge for his defeat when he ran for judge or if it has something to do with power politics involving Lansing and Ingham County.
– Eliot Singer
Public Response: re: East Lansing Government’s Record on Transparency? Failures Abound. // Alice Dreger
Thanks to Public Response for sharing my report on transparency in our City government. As the report indicates, some things have gotten better in the last four years, but we still find a lot of new and old roadblocks to transparency.
The disappeared communication signed by dozens of citizens who are critical of court consolidation is the most curious issue at the moment.
Mayor Mark Meadows told us via email that he “remembers reading” the communication organized by Joanie Brogan, writing, “Joanie’s was also signed by 8-10 other people.” (Joanie Brogan estimates it was signed by many more, perhaps around 75 people.)
Mark Meadows appears to be the only person in the City who acknowledges having seen this signed communication. Our request to see it via FOIA came back “no records found in the City of East Lansing.”
Joanie Brogan gave us a copy of the text (without signatures) on Sunday, and we reproduced it here: https://eastlansinginfo.org/sites/default/files/el_citizen_petition_on_court_consolidation.pdf
She does not have a copy with the signatures.
Mark Meadows has not answered questions about how he saw this signed communication (by email? on paper?), whether he still has the copy with signatures, what he did with it, why it didn’t reach the rest of City Council, and why it wasn’t published in Council Communications for the public to see.
Mark Meadows’ only response to us on this matter, sent on Sunday, included this odd line: “ I would never assume that a letter sent specifically to me is intended to be made public. If the letter writer wanted to do that, they have a perfect right to do so.”
But Joanie Brogan’s communication was addressed to all of Council as well as the City Manager. How much more clear could Joanie Brogan have made it that it was intended to be shared with City Council and made public?
As a reminder, four additional anti-court-consolidation letters addressed to East Lansing’s Council also did not make it to Council Communications. These were from the Lansing NAACP, a local veterans group, Retired Judge Jordon, and seated Judges Andrea Larkin and Richard Ball.
It sure looks from here like there has been systematic suppression of political dissent on this issue. Otherwise it is hard to explain why spam offering promotional products is included in Council Communications, but these five communications were not.
Is staff suppressing these communications? If so, why?
If it is not staff suppressing the communications, who is it?
I asked City Manager George Lahanas to explain on Sunday, and he has not.
One must wonder, what else is being suppressed from public view?
It is worth recalling that Council Members Aaron Stephens and Shanna Draheim recently forced a change to the Council operating procedures so that staff and/or the mayor could not keep items off the agenda that two or more Council members want on. This change was put through because someone was keeping off the agenda items that Aaron Stephens and Shanna Draheim wanted on.
It’s also worth remembering that the majority on Council (Mark Meadows, Erik Altmann, and Ruth Beier) consolidated the power to adjudicate FOIA appeals under the office of the Mayor. Mark Meadows alone decides how to answer our appeals when the City claims “no records found.”
Alternatively, we could sue, and cost the taxpayers money. We’ve elected not to do that so far.
We keep hoping things will get better.
I do agree with Alice that publishing her article on a website that has easy public access and the ability to easily respond is a good thing. I do want to correct some things though. In her update, Alice states that I seem “to think this is the fault of staff.” The concept of “fault” did not enter into my response to Alice. I only related what I know and that is all I ever can do. Alice ascribes “fault” because she thinks this is a major (apparently) problem with the operation of City Government. As I have indicated, I don’t see any reason why communications relating to the fact that Court Consolidation discussions are ongoing (sort of—if you want to read my actual response to Alice’s question involving this, it is repeated on the ELI facebook page with alot of discussion involving the article published on PR) would not be posted as communications to Council but I do not know how any of these came to City Hall except Judge Jordan’s, which was sent to me at my home by him and also to me at City Hall. I think he probably sent a copy to every Council Member.
I see from reading Alice’s original comments on PR that she considers part of my response to her question to me to be “odd” which now makes me conclude that I should include the response here so you can draw your own conclusions and which may result in the question as to why Alice has a habit of asking the same question over and over even when it is already answered:
“When you say petition (She had asked about missing petitions), what do you mean? If any letter sent to “council” is received at City Hall it should appear as a communication on the website. Council Members receive lots of emails and letters weekly. Staff presumably does not review communications sent to individual council members and, in any event, that type of communication would not appear on the website. I would never assume that a letter sent specifically to me is intended to be made public. If the letter writer wanted to do that, they have a perfect right to do so.
“I remember reading two letters on Court Consolidation, one from Joanie Brogan and one from Judge Jordan. Joanie’s was also signed by 8-10 people (I later corrected this to “couples”). Neither was a petition. Both commented on the legislation passed last year and opined that Court Consolidation would not be a good idea. (I will note here that I had not seen Joanie’s letter since I first read it but it also asked why there had not been a community meeting on Court Consolidation).
“The City has not made any decisions relating to Court Consolidation and I don’t know if it ever will. The discussions long ago moved away from moving courts to retaining each of them in their current location, with juries from each court’s jurisdictional area and judges elected from each court’s jurisdicational area. I think the last meeting regarding consolidation was in May. There was draft legislation (amendment of current legislation) discussed more recently. Savings would eventually come from consolidation of administrative staff of the courts through attrition. Another factor that could influence consolidation is the most recent SCAO analysis of caseloads. EL shows as 1.6 judges, Lansing as 4.7 and Mason as 2.4. To balance this, there is discussion to move Meridian and Williamstown Twps into the EL Ct and Lansing Twp into the Lansing Ct. The result would be 4.8 judges for Lansing, 2.0 for EL and 1.9 for Mason.
“I am a little worried that since Dick Ball cannot run again, if we don’t get Meridian and Williamstown we could lose a judge. The regular caseload analyzed by SCAO shows a need for 1.11 judges in EL. It is our specialty courts that push the number to 1.37 and the lack of a magistrate pushes it to 1.61.
I don’t know why Alice thinks that any part of my statement is “odd”. Perhaps because I think citizens should be able to have private communications with public officials? It is Alice’s opinion that there has been “systematic suppression of political dissent on this issue” that has me even more puzzled. Judge Ball made an impassioned presentation to Coucil at a Council meeting regarding this issue. So did members and beneficiaries of our specialty courts. Alice wrote about the communications other than Joanie’s in May and questioned why they were not in the communications with council on the website (I don’t know what she was told if she asked about this then). Judge Larkin, to the best of my memory, has been in every meeting to discuss the issue as have many of the other District Judges. George made a presentation to Council at a discussion only meeting on this issue. More importantly, what purpose would be served by “surpressing” these communications? I can’t think of a single reason to do so. I even supplied Alice with the documents creating our specialty courts to dispell the notion that somehow they would be moved if there was consolidation.
The answer to Joanie’s letter is, of course, there is nothing to have a community meeting about. There is no plan, there is no agreement, there is nothing to discuss. If, or the unlikely when, a plam is put forward, there will be a community meeting and public hearings. The Council has authorized participation in meetings, not agreement with other units of government on a plan for consolidation.
While I am at it though, I do want to address a couple of other comments made by Alice regarding this election. The first occurred in her coverage of the LWV forum. She indicated that Altmann and I had ‘avoided” the issue of the Merritt Road land sale. No question was asked during the forum about the Merritt Road land sale and when the second forum, hosted by ASMSU, started, I asked if we would be asked a question on it because some of us had been accursed of avoiding the question. For the record, there are emails from late November, which Alice has, that show the staff recommendation of doing a RFP on the property, responses from Shanna and myself, emails identifying outside auction vendors and staff proposals regarding that but no emails regarding putting the auction on ebay. When I inquired about the auction, I was told that the EBay route had been chosen because of the cost. Council was not consulted on the details of the auction and didn’t need to be. I can only comment on the reason I voted to accept the offer. Those reasons have been detailed elsewhere but run from the length of time the property was on the market (15 years) to the potential environmental cleanup costs. I thought it was a fair offer under the circumstances and still do. Especially since the prior offer, for $850,000 in 2018 had been accepted and then withdrawn because of the cleanup costs, 10 acreas of the site sold in 2011 for $350,000 with a $385,000 TIF and a bird in hand is worth two in the bush. I now know who the sucessful bidder was but never met him or any of the other bidders before the sale. There was no backroom deal and the auction was not secret. The price was pushed up by the Costco approval and Provisioning Center zoning decisions. There seems to be some consternation about the new owner offering the land for $12 million. There now is an approved site plan for a provisioning center, a strip mall and a hotel on the site. I hope it sells for 12 million. That would give a taxable value of 6 million on a piece of property that has never paid taxes and would get us income taxes off of 11 million. But, I think the $12 million sale price is a pipedream unless the property was fully developed first.
The second thing I want to talk about is Alice’s article which was originally captioned as fact checking candidate statements. Of course, only Altmann’s and Meadows’ statements were “fact checked”, so far at least. In that article Alice talks about two things that I want to address: using taxes to pay for the attorney fees, origination fees,etc and using TIF for the Landmark building site. In her article, Alice states, about the Center City project: “new taxes from the project are also being used to pay the developer’s lawyer, pay the developer’s financial advisor, pay for private construction costs on Grand River Building (including demolition, excavation and foundation work) and pay an origination fee to developer Mark Bell’s father.” As to the use of taxes for the Landmark building I will try to be brief but this is a highly complicated deal and I understand that someone can be confused by all the different documents related to it. Here the starting point is the resolution approving the Brownfield Plan. That approval limited the approval to the “expenses detailed in an approved Master Development Agreement Exhibit N ‘City Approved Eligible Activities'” The Developmet Agreement limits approved activities to “the costs of the eligible activities which are set forth in Column 2, Scenario A of Exhibit N (The “City Approved Eligible Activities”). The net proceeds from the BRA Bonds shall not exceed $24,389,518.” Exhibit N identifies the eligible activities as “no Grand River eligible activities”, identifies “Albert Avenue Building” eligible expenses, clearly excludes the demolition expenses for the Grand River site and limits “Grand River” eligible expenses to the sidewalks and the alley. What Alice may be referring to in her article is the cost of asbestos removal, which is an eligible expense and is consistent with the policy established by Coucil relative to the use of TIF. Thus, the statement by Alice relating to the Grand River building is ipartly correct as asbestos removal is an eligible expense. As to using taxes to pay for the other expenses identified by Alice, I think she may also be wrong about that. The bond Counsel letter details the expenses to be paid by the bond, not to be paid by taxes. The bond was in the amount of $25,265,000. It was divided into two funds, the BRA project fund in the amount of $24,389,518 and the Cost of Issuance Fund, in the amount of $875,482. Exhibit A to the letter detailed the components of the Cost of Issuance Fund: Origination fee, Bond Counsel, Developer’s Counsel, Developer’s Financial Advisor, Trustee-Acceptance, Trustee-First year as Trustee, Trustee-First year Construction and Security Report Filing Fee. The bond proceeds paid those amounts, not taxes. In fact, no taxes are eligible to pay for those costs because the TIF plan is limited to paying for the $24,389,518 BRA Project fund plus interest. The total recoverable prinicipal plus interest shown on Exhibit N is $50,217,825. Thus only the the project costs may be paid out of Tax Increment Revenue and the interest recoverable by the developer is limited to the interest earned on the the actual project costs, which exclude the costs that Alice identified.
The next thing is TIF itself. The current Council has consistently used TIF to pay for environmental costs and public infrastructure. The current Council adopted an official policy regarding this. Alice lists a number of projects which she claims have not been consistent with that policy. Before I get to that though, I want to be clear: I think TIF can be misused and can be directed to developers with phony public infrastructure or phony environmental cleanup costs. You might have seen that in the project for the old Tastee Twist site which boosted environmental costs that would actually be assisting the developer in the construction of a parking garage. The Council did not buy into that and limited its approval to actual environmental cleanup costs. The project did not go forward as a result. There is no question that developers get paid back for environmental cleanup costs. I can’t agree that repayment of such costs constitute “incentives paid to developers” since the approval of their projects is reliant upon them fronting the money to pay for the costs. The same is true for public infrastructure. Alice correctly quotes me in her earlier article as saying we force them to loan us the money. We use the money they send to us in taxes to pay them back. Alice does, however, correctly identify a developer incentive when she talks about the $10,000,000 the Park Place project got from the state. Other than the area being a Brownfield area though, the City had no part in that. It was awarded years ago and had survived the reduction of that program that took place in 2011. This Council did take action to award that money in the sense that it had to cancel and then reinstate a brownfield plan. I was interested in having them get it though because I wanted the prior developer out of our hair. As to Costco, Alice says that Meridian Township was opposed to using TIF and did not participate in it. Actually, Meridian Township approved the Tif plan. They limited their involvement to the first million (it is 1.9 million). The plan includes the cleanup costs for the demolition of the “fun park” that existed there and the public infrastructure on Park Lake Road and Saginaw Highway. She may be referring to the cost of the environmental improvements on the site. TIF does not include taxes paid by our citizens. TIF is limited to the taxes paid by the developer for the site that is the subject of the development plan.
Pretty long winded,
Pardon any typos. I am in Nashville for the LION Publishers meeting (Local Independent Online News Publishers) and am double-timing here.
1. Mark Meadows says he has not blamed staff for losing the citizens’ petition against court consolidation.
Meadows has said that staff had the petition, gave it to him to read, and that he gave it back to them. So, either he stopped it from making it to City Council and failed to provide in the FOIA response, or staff did. You can watch the tape from last Tuesday in which Meadows said he could not explain why it never made it to Council and was not provided in FOIA. (The FOIA response came back “no records found.”)
2. Mark Meadows says, “I don’t know why Alice thinks that any part of my statement is ‘odd’. Perhaps because I think citizens should be able to have private communications with public officials?”
You should all now know that if you organize a petition with 75 signatures and you address it to the Mayor, City Council, and City Manager, if Mark Meadows is in office, that may be considered a “private communication” that will not be included in Council Communications and will not be shown to others in response to Freedom of Information Act Requests.
Sidenote: This explains so much about what is missing in FOIA responses.
3. Mark Meadows writes, “It is Alice’s opinion that there has been ‘systematic suppression of political dissent on this issue’ that has me even more puzzled. Judge Ball made an impassioned presentation to Coucil at a Council meeting regarding this issue. So did members and beneficiaries of our specialty courts.”
Right. Mark Meadows could not stop those presentations from surfacing because they were made in public meetings, on camera.
Remember that a total of five anti-court-consolidation communications were kept out of “Council Communications.” Someone had the power to keep those from the pubic’s eye, and someone used that power.
4. It is true that at the League of Women Voters’ forum, there was no specific question on the eBay land sale of land on Merritt Road. Meadows could have absolutely brought it up anyway. His challengers Jessy Gregg, Lisa Babcock, and Warren Stanfield did, particularly when asked about transparency.
5.On the eBay land sale, Mark Meadows says, “There was no backroom deal and the auction was not secret.” When you tell only a small handful of people that there is an auction, it may not be a secret auction, but it’s a lousy auction.
6. I don’t know how Mark Meadows can suggest that the bond on Center City is not paying for the developer’s private attorney, private financial advisor, etc. Here is the evidence: https://eastlansinginfo.org/sites/default/files/18-05_baird_closing_letter_12-13-2017.pdf
7. Mark Meadows may not be familiar with the bond dispersements that show that the Center City TIF is also being used to pay for development of private property owned by the developers, namely for the Landmark building (student rental housing). Here is the evidence: https://eastlansinginfo.org/sites/default/files/center_city_tif_bond_receipts_2018-05_pay_app_06_final.pdf
8. For Mark Meadows to say “the City had no part” in DRW Convexity obtaining the $10 million Michigan Business Tax tax credit is, well, bizarre, given that he then goes on to confirm that it had a part. Council specifically hurried up various approvals needed for that deal so that DRW Convexity would not see that $10 million credit time-out, something that would have killed the project. Mayor Pro Tem Erik Altmann specifically showed up at the state-level vote that gave the $10 million credit for the East Lansing project. That’s not a TIF, but it is Michigan taxpayer money for private development.
Alice Dreger / Publisher
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