Objection! To city´s lawyer
|By Andy Balaskovitz|
Petition drive seeks to mandate a legal department in East Lansing, rather than contracting it out to private firm
In a fight with personal overtones and political consequences, a group of East Lansing residents wants to replace the private law firm that handles the city’s legal business with a government legal office.
Attorney Jeffrey Hank, an East Lansing resident and congressional candidate for Michigan´s 8th District, has submitted nearly 2,300 signatures to the East Lansing city clerk to revise the city charter and require the city´s legal representation to be in-house. Tom Yeadon, an attorney with the East Lansing-based McGinty, Hitch, Housefield, Person, Yeadon & Anderson law firm, is contracted by the city to represent it in legal matters. The city is budgeting $479,400 for legal services in the coming fiscal year.
“I really despise Tom Yeadon,” Hank says, but it’s not the reason for his initiative. He says he wants to eliminate the potential for conflicts of interest.
Yeardon’s firm has a decades-long history with the city. Dennis McGinty, a partner at the firm, was an assistant city attorney for East Lansing between 1969 and 1973 and then city attorney from 1973 to 2012. Yeadon was assistant city attorney from 1985 to 2012 before he took over as city attorney. The City Council approves the contract.
Yeadon said the latest three-year contract is set to expire June 30, 2015. It bills the city at hourly rates that vary from $67.50 to $132. The budget projection is an estimate of expected costs.
Of the signatures Hank and team have collected, roughly 1,200 — 5 percent of qualified and registered voters — must be valid. City Clerk Marie Wicks has 45 days to review the signatures that were turned in on June 17, but she expects to finish canvassing them this week.
"I´ve been talking about reforming the city attorney´s office for years," Hank said.
Hank doesn´t know whether a legal department would save money. His concern is potential conflicts of interest.
"Whenever you have a private law firm like this, you don´t know who else it´s representing," Hank said. "We´re asking that the city attorney works exclusively for the city."
Hank is joined in his efforts by Phil Bellfy, a retired Michigan State University professor of American Studies and American Indian Studies.
Bellfy told the State News recently: “We have no way of knowing if the work they are doing privately has any conflict with the city. The way the ethics ordinance of East Lansing is worded, the city must avoid even the appearance of conflict of interest.”
But Yeadon dismisses both arguments. He says petition organizers are not factoring in other costs for operating a law department, such as health benefits, pensions, staff and equipment. Yeadon also said that some cities with in-house counsel only rely on them for city work (reviewing contracts, drafting ordinances) but not prosecution. The McGinty Law Firm does both for East Lansing. He also said the firm, having worked for the city for decades, brings experience that a new team wouldn´t.
He estimated that about three or four times a year, the firm hands cases over to neighboring law departments — such as Meridian Township or Lansing — if there´s an appearance of a conflict. Also, the City Council was scheduled Tuesday night to appoint an outside attorney from the Miller Canfield Law Firm to assist with reviewing the petition drive.
"It´s not a money-saving proposition," Yeadon said, adding that the City Charter already allows the Council to create an inhouse department if it chooses.
"It´s a nonsensical argument to say that by virtue of the fact we represent private clients" that there would be the appearance of a conflict of interest, Yeadon added.
Hank has told local media that his congressional opponent, Ingham County Treasurer Eric Schertzing, has signed the petition. So has Bob Alexander, who ran for the 8th Congressional seat in 2006 and 2008 and who is closely involved with Democratic Party politics.
The Schertzing campaign on Tuesday could neither confirm nor deny that he had signed the petition. Alexander on Monday said, "I signed the petition not knowing much about it."
Mark Meadows, a former East Lansing mayor and state representative, joined the fray when he called the petition drive "BS" on Facebook. Meadows studied the same issue about 16 years ago when he got started on the Council and found that there wouldn´t be any cost savings by creating an in-house legal department.
"When it was over, I was convinced I was wrong," Meadows said. "It would have cost us substantially more money to bring it in-house." Meadows later added in a Facebook comment: "I don´t know what impact the old report would have on current costs."
Mayor Nathan Triplett said he´s found that East Lansing pays $9.88 percapita for the legal services it receives, compared to $14 per capita in Lansing and $13 per capita in Jackson — both communities with in-house law departments. Triplett compared the budget appropriations for the full law department in those cities with the population.
"Not only would it not save money, but it would cost taxpayers more for legal services," Triplett said, adding that cities — similarly sized, bigger and smaller — across the state have used the same model as East Lansing with conflict of interest issues. "The argument about conflicts of interest doesn´t hold water."
Meadows said there´s a "hidden issue," which is the series of lawsuits filed by Hank against the city and Yeadon that were mostly unsuccessful. Meadows also suggested the petition drive is a "publicity stunt" for Hank to gain name recognition in his congressional campaign.
Hank responded that the suit isn´t personal and that reforming the process has been his goal years before running for Congress. However, discussing the years of litigation he´s brought against the city and of Yeadon personally, he admitted Monday that that´s at least part of it: "They´re trying to paint this as Phil and I being pissed off about litigation. I make no secret about it. In that sense, yes, the petition is meant to alleviate a particular problem with Tom Yeadon."
In this fiscal year, East Lansing budgeted $475,375 for "corporate counsel." It spent $462,830 in fiscal year 2012 and $413,761 in fiscal year 2013.
"This is based on a philosophical idea of a private law firm receiving millions of dollars," Hank said, referring to the city´s decades-long partnership with the firm.
For first-term City Councilwoman Ruth Beier, transparency issues are more important than cost. Beier signed the petition when she was running as a Council candidate.
"Theoretically I think it´s a good idea," she said, adding that it was a general question of creating an in-house legal team and not directed at Yeadon in particular. "It´s very hard for a firm to exist in East Lansing to represent the city and people or entities that deal with the city that might have conflicting interests."
Beier also said that she isn´t aware of any conflict of interest violations. "It may be a bigger problem theoretically than in actuality. I have not seen anything nefarious yet.
"I don´t say this very often, but cost has to be secondary to transparency in this case."
But for another first-term Councilwoman, Susan Woods, that there have been no reported cases of conflict of interest suggests the process is fine as it is. "Has it happened? That´s a very tenuous complaint. Of course (Yeadon) would recuse himself (if there is a conflict of interest). He´s been on the up and up the whole time," Woods said.
She is still waiting to see whether any cost savings may surface before making a final decision on supporting it.
Council members Kathleen Boyle and Diane Goddeeris were unavailable for comment.
City Pulse profiled Bellfy and Hank in a September 2012 story about a lawsuit they brought against Yeadon for allegedly violating the city´s residency requirements. Hank said they dropped the case after Yeadon moved into the city from Okemos.
Additionally, Hank has represented clients in court on several matters against East Lansing involving alleged mailbox tampering and excessive citations for overoccupancy by code enforcement officials.
At the time, four separate cases were pending in courts throughout the state. Hank and Bellfy also filed a complaint alleging an Open Meetings Act violation in 2012 in Circuit Court, but that was thrown out by Judge Clinton Canady III — and Bellfy and Hank were both sanctioned $1,000 each for a letter Bellfy reportedly sent to McGinty saying he would tell the Federal Bureau of Investigation to back off a different investigation involving allegations of tax fraud.
Hank said on Monday that he no longer had any pending cases involving the city of East Lansing.
Ultimately, Yeadon has "a hard time believing" that the campaign isn´t personal. "The way it´s drafted, the emails I´ve gotten over the years, it appears to me it´s clearly personal, clearly an attempt to get me out of the job."