June 22 2016 11:59 AM

Council comfortable with Bernero’s latest choice for city attorney

For months, the Lansing City Attorney’s Office has been rocked by one controversy after another. That’s something City Attorney nominee Jim Smiertka hopes to fix.

“There’s just a big credibility issue,” said Smiertka in a phone interview Monday. “We have to restore that credibility and solidify the office.”

It’s a tall order for the man tapped by Mayor Virg Bernero. Smiertka, 70. has been out of the city attorney business since 2004, working instead with Prima Civitas. Previous to working for the Lansing-based economic development nonprofit, he served as city attorney for former mayors David Hollister and Tony Benevides and did some time as an assistant city attorney in Kalamazoo.

If approved by the Lansing City Council, which seems likely, Smiertka must tackle an array of controversies.

There was a standoff with Councilwoman Judi Brown Clarke over unpaid legal bills. Brown Clarke had to threaten to use the Council’s subpoena power to find out why bills weren’t being paid.

There’s the secretive and costly exit from City Hall of former City Attorney Janene McIntyre. Related to this issue is a battle between the Bernero administration and City Council about how much control the Council has on legal matters.

Federal housing officials are still reviewing a complaint orchestrated by Bernero that City Council violated fair housing laws in rejecting a housing project earlier this year.

There is a series of Freedom of Information Act-related issues stacking up in the office as well. Some of those requests have gone unfulfilled and some have been delayed by months. On top of that, the office started a new policy to redact the names of persons arrested and arraigned on criminal charges in police reports and 54A district court registers.

And there is an ethics controversy surrounding Interim City Attorney Joe Abood’s continued interest in his former law firm and the employment of his daughter at the City Attorney’s Office. Abood will continue on as chief deputy if, as expected, the Council approves Smiertka later this month.

In announcing Smiertka’s appointment, Bernero called him “one of the top municipal attorneys in Michigan, if not the country.”

Smiertka said Bernero invited him for a conversation about the post about three weeks ago. “I was aware the position was open,” he said. “But I didn’t know Mayor Bernero well enough to call him up and say, ‘Hey, Virg … .’”

Instead, Bernero came to Smiertka. Following a meeting with the mayor and his chief of staff, Randy Hannan, the deal was sealed. And not a minute too soon. Smiertka was a finalist for the city attorney post in Grand Rapids. He said he will withdraw from consideration for that post this week.

While the Council has given the appointment a warm reception, some members remain rankled by the selection process.

In March, the Council approved Abood as interim city attorney but asked to be part of interviewing and selecting a permanent city attorney. That never happened.

“I don’t like it,” said Clarke, the Council president. “But in this case, it’s a happy ending.”

The city attorney answers to both the mayor and council, an arrangement mandated by the City Charter. It’s an issue that Smiertka acknowledges.

“Sometimes there is a friction between the administration and Council,” he said. “I try to massage that and look for common ground.”

Carol Wood, like Clarke an at-large Councilwoman, has had experience working with Smiertka, and he has her full support.

“I think people are going to be pleasantly surprised by the changes in the City Attorney’s Office,” she said.

As the city has struggled with leadership issues in the City Attorney’s Office, the day-to-day work — writing ordinances, defending the city against lawsuits — has slipped. An example of delays is the debate about an ordinance to regulate medical marijuana dispensaries.

Since December the city has been struggling with how to regulate medical marijuana dispensaries. It has reviewed several draft ordinances, but none have moved beyond conversation at the Committee on Public Safety, which Wood chairs.

Smiertka said the medical marijuana dispensary ordinance would be one of his first priorities. “It’s a huge issue.”

The most recent draft was presented to the committee in March. But last week, Abood and his team informed the committee that the draft was “unenforceable.” Wood has demanded the Office of the City Attorney return to the committee on July 8 with an enforceable ordinance or a viable plan to shut down all the dispensaries in the city.

She said she believes part of the issue was a belief system in the City Attorney’s Office “to take a position” and then “find a way to legalize it.” Smiertka said his focus on the marijuana issues and other matters will always be on the law.

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