Lansing City Council stalls new city attorney appointment

Venker to continue on an interim basis


WEDNESDAY, April 10— The Lansing City Council has put Mayor Andy Schor’s nomination of a new city attorney on hold.

Schor handed his appointment of Greg Venker to the Council in Monday’s Committee of the Whole meeting, but members voted unanimously to table the decision. Venker will continue serving as interim city attorney, as he has since James Smiertka announced his retirement on March 15. Venker was Smiertka’s deputy.

As he introduced his recommendation, Schor said an internal hire made the most sense. He cited the cost of a search and knowledge of the city as determining factors.

“In the city attorney’s position, you have to know the current city, have to know the code, you have to know the charter. Greg’s been here for a number of years, he’s been fantastic as a deputy city attorney,” Schor said Monday. “When you have the right person, you put them forward, and I truly believe that Greg Venker understands that he’d be working for both you and for me and the charter.”

Venker, 41, a former state prosecutor in Wisconsin, was hired as an assistant city attorney in 2017 and became deputy city attorney last year.

When it came time to deliberate, 1st Ward member Ryan Kost said he had some reservations.

“My concern with appointing the city attorney this quickly is we all haven’t had a chance to properly vet Greg. This is the only check and balance that we have when it comes to department heads, and I don’t think that there’s any reason to rush this. I want to make sure that we get it right,” Kost said, noting that he found Venker to be “a very nice person.”

Kost added that he had “concerns about the way things are going to flow” under new legal leadership and that he wanted more time to consider the city’s options.

In particular, Kost, who chairs the Public Safety Committee, said that the City Attorney's Office has told his committee “over and over again when we try to do something in Public Safety that we can’t. Other cities in Michigan are doing it, but we legally can’t do it. Things are changing, the housing stock is getting worse, people are living in more dangerous situations. So, I want to make sure that we’re doing this selection correctly,” Kost said.

Council Vice President Adam Hussain said he was “initially prepared to support” the nomination but said Kost’s objections included “some good points.”

Hussain said he’d sat down with Venker to discuss the appointment and was confident in his experience.

“We did have some candid conversations around some concerns about whether the fight would be there, the grit, the resourcefulness — particularly if we talk about bad actors, predatory actors in the city of Lansing,” Hussain said. “The other piece is, when we talk about volume and workload, this is elevated over deputy city attorney. You have to be available around the clock. So, we had some conversations about whether the capacity would be there.”

On Kost’s claim that the city attorney’s decisions have occasionally prohibited efforts in committee efforts, Hussain said he was “absolutely spot on.”

“There are times where we want to go full throttle and it seems like there’s quite a bit of pushback. I don’t know where that comes from,” he said.

At-Large member Tamera Carter said she hadn’t spoken yet with Venker about the details.

“Timing is something for me. Everything looks good on paper, I just want to make sure that I do my due diligence and have a thorough conversation before making a finalized appointment decision,” Carter said.

At-Large member Trini Pehlivanoglu noted that Venker contacted each Council member ahead of Monday’s meeting and offered to meet with them. She took him up on it.

“I will say that in my experience with him, he has been completely responsive, and he does know the city and how it works and how it should work. I think his responses to me have been balanced, and I don't feel that they were ever skewed in one way or another. He simply gave me facts and information,” Pehlivanoglu said.

Like Hussain, Council President Jeremy Garza said he came in intending to support the appointment but that he would respect the decision of his colleagues in delaying it.

“He’s kind of a gentleman that works and thinks outside the box, and I think he would be a very good fit for our city attorney. With that all being said, I will definitely support tabling this at this point in time,” Garza said.

“I would agree that maybe an interim phase would be appropriate, just to ensure that even Mr. Venker knows what he’s getting into and if he can sustain that,” Hussain said before making the motion to table. 

In an interview yesterday, Hussain said Venker was never approved by Council for interim status. In the past, he said, the administration has asked the Council to confirm interim positions as well as permanent posts.

“Instead of that resolution, what we got was a resolution actually appointing Greg Venker as the city attorney,” Hussain said. “We really don't need to rush on this. If he's in the position as interim, whether it's been confirmed by Council or not, we have representation, we have leadership within that office.”

When asked about the decision yesterday, Kost said he plans on meeting with Venker soon.

“I'd like to see what his feelings are on the direction of the City Attorney's Office,” Kost said. “In Public Safety, when we try to ask for ordinances such as making a bad landlord pay for hoteling, we've been told that's not legal under Michigan law. So, I’d want to know what his philosophical views are when it comes to the law in those situations.”

An effort to reach Schor for comment today was  unsusccesful.


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