Petition to remove City Council's ability to hire law firm seeks place on ballot

A citizen petition to the city of East Lansing could change how the city gets its legal advice.

The petition, signed by at least 2,269 citizens, would remove City Council’s ability to hire a private law firm for the position of city attorney.

The petition was filed by the East Lansing Citizens for a Public Servant City Attorney, co-chaired by Jeffery Hank, a U.S. congressional candidate and Phil Bellfy, a former MSU professor and state senate candidate in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich.

According to the East Lansing City Charter, City Council has the ability to appoint a city attorney or contract a private lawyer that is not directly employed by the city. For years, the city has used a private law firm acting as the legal advisor and attorney for City Council.

“It appears to me that (the petition language) would limit councils options,” East Lansing City Attorney George Lahanas said.

Hank and the East Lansing Citizens for a Public Servant City Attorney believe the change would save the city money while keeping expenses internal and not in the hands of private firms.

According to the statement, “The initiative aims to save taxpayers money ... the city provides a private law firm with at least a $500,000 per-year contract.”

The switch to an in-house city attorney may not be the money-saver touted by the group, though.

In the statement, the group said cities with in-house city attorneys save the city money. An example used was Jackson, Mich., whose city attorney has a salary of only $112,000.

While Jackson, Mich., only spends $112,000 on the city attorney position, it has many other positions to fill. In an in-house system, the city must create an entire legal department. With the employees now working for the city, they also are given all benefits a city employee receives such as health benefits.

For the city of Jackson, the cost of funding the entire department is over $400,000. The price is comparable to the city of East Lansing, given Jackson’s population is 45 percent smaller than East Lansing.

Currently, the city attorney is Tom Yeadon, a partner at McGinty, Hitch, Housefield, Person, Yeadon and Anderson Law firm. Yeadon is currently also a special assistant city attorney for the city of Lansing.

Activists signing the petition believe the hiring of a private law firm could create a conflict of interest in the city.

“We have no way of knowing if the work they are doing privately has and conflict with the city,” Bellfy said. “The way the ethics ordinance of East Lansing is worded, the city must avoid even the appearance of conflict of interest.”

The McGinty Law Firm has served East Lansing for about 40 years and though the city attorney has changed due to retirements within the firm, there has been no new bid processes for the position, Bellfy said.

“The arrangement is bizarre,” Hank said. “We have a city attorney who is also our city prosecutor. Every county prosecutor and judge is an elected position. Why is this person who has extraordinary influence not a city employee?”

The city is now in the process of validating all petition signatures. Once validated, ballot language will be crafted for the upcoming election.

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