The still largely unexplained $160,663 payout to former City Attorney Janene McIntyre was preceded by a legal claim she made against the city, according to the minutes of an obscure council committee meeting.
Lansing City Attorney Jim Smiertka told the Committee on Ways and Means last August that McIntyre had been paid over $78,000 “for release of the claim.” He characterized the claims as “employment related,” according to minutes of the Aug. 3 meeting, but declined to explain what those claims may have been. He also noted that the Office of the City Attorney had been unable to find any written documents related to such a claim. It is one of many McIntyre-related documents that Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero’s administration has said it cannot locate.
Smiertka’s characterization jibes with reporting by WILX last March that found $127,000 of McIntyre’s payout came from a budget line item to pay off claims and judgments.
The acknowledgement that the severance settlement followed the release from a claim by McIntyre conflicts with the characterization of the payout offered by Bernero following a firestorm over the former city attorney’s abrupt departure from City Hall at the beginning of March last year. Shortly after her exit, the Bernero administration released a separation agreement signed by the mayor and McIntyre that included a release of legal claims, as well as a $10,000 non-disparagement clause, effectively silencing parties to the agreement.
Councilmember At-Large Judi Brown Clarke said at the time Angela Bennett, the budget director, explained to her and fellow Councilmember Carol Wood that there had been “a threat of a lawsuit,” which justified the use of the claims and judgments budget. Brown Clarke said Bennett declined to explain what that lawsuit threat was. Wood backed up her recollection of the off-the-record meeting.
In a May 2016 interview with Dave Akerly on his WILS “Morning Wake Up” radio show, Bernero coyly raised the specter of legal action, noting “we live in a litigious society.” Akerly pressed Bernero as to whether McIntyre had grounds to file a legal action, and Bernero said “anyone has grounds,” inferring the adage than anyone can file a lawsuit at anytime. But he also said the deal was to “grease the skids, to get things done so everybody would be happy,” and he characterized the payment as a “bonus.”
“She’s a good person, she did good work, she was doing two jobs at the same time, and she got an $80,000 bonus on her way out,” he said.
Bernero’s Chief of Staff Randy Hannan, responding to questions, reiterated the city position that“it was a negotiated separation agreement that included a general release of claims to eliminate the possibility of litigation that could have cost Lansing taxpayers far more.” He emphasized the phrase “general release of claims.”
The shifting messages, lost documents and lack of transparency by Bernero and his administration have frustrated City Council attempts to uncover what prompted the McIntyre departure and the costly settlement.
“This Council was told over and over this was done because of a potential lawsuit,” Wood said. “Many of us on Council were upset with the comments made by the mayor, because not only the public but Council was receiving two different messages.”
In late August, City Council did pass two resolutions. The first would require Council approval of separation agreements for at-will administration employees, while the second would require approval for such deals for the City Attorney.
But the issue lost steam with the Council over the summer when it became clear a five-vote majority of councilmembers was not going to approve the expense of an outside investigation, said Judi Brown Clarke, a Councilmember At-Large who served as the body’s president last year and chair of the Ways and Means Committee. That observation is also supported in the Aug. 3 minutes.
While she stopped short of accusing Bernero of lying to the public, she did say he had misled the public over the payout.
“I think it becomes that absence of information,” she said of the mayor’s comments. “I don't directly give you false information. I leave gaps in my statements to allow you to make assumptions.”
The still unresolved Mc- Intyre affair could play into the coming mayoral battle. Bernero is up for re-election. He’s held the office for three terms, bellowing his way through elections and challengers while also running for governor and flirting with a run for Congress. But he hasn’t faced a real electoral challenge since he beat Tony Benavides in tight rematch in 2005.
In 2017, Bernero is likely to face a challenge from State Rep. Andy Schor, a Democrat cut from a different, less confrontational cloth. Current City Councilmember At-Large Judi Brown Clarke, a first term incumbent up for re-election, is considering whether to surrender her Council seat and challenge Bernero as well.
One of the issues will be Bernero’s propensity for large departure payouts, not just for McIntyre but also for Peter Lark. The former general manager of the Lansing Board of Water & Light, who had the mayor’s backing until he didn’t, left the utility with $650,000. Compounding a bruising primary and general election are special interest groups like organized labor and the Chamber of Commerce, as well as the emergence of secretive, agenda-driven political nonprofits.
“The people haven't forgotten,” Brown Clarke said of the money spent on payouts. “When I go out and I talk to people, It's brought up. Frequently. And I can't say every time, but it's brought up frequently, and it will be part of this year.
“It also brings up the issues of credibility, trust and fiscal responsibility,” she added. “I think that's important. I think people really want to know or have assumptions.”
Brown Clarke indicated that while she hesitated to go to the Attorney General last summer — she wanted to have “Council consensus” for such a move to avoid being accused of political posturing — that option was back on the table now.
Wood notes that the political will on Council is not present to pursue outside legal counsel nor to further investigate the payout itself. The “final step,” Wood said, “could be asking the Attorney General to review this matter.”