Following an investigation by the Michigan Bureau of Elections, City of East Lansing City Manager George Lahanas violated the Michigan Campaign Finance Act, or MCFA.
Lahanas, who in a column known as the “Manager’s Message” in the city’s newsletter, Dialog, urged voters to vote yes on a ballot question during the November 2014 General Election that would allow for the city to sell city-owned land in hopes of moving plans forward to develop the area of East Lansing known as Park District.
The Bureau of Elections determined that Lahanas’ use of his column suggesting a yes vote was in violation of the the MFCA because the “MCFA prohibits a public body or an individual acting on its behalf to use or authorize the use of 'funds, personnel, office space, computer hardware or software, property, stationery, postage, vehicles, equipment, supplies, or other public resources to make a contribution or expenditure.'”
Since the Dialog is paid for by the city through its general fund and is a mass mailing, the use of it to urge a yes or no vote violates the MCFA.
Lahanas released a brief statement over the phone.
“We have received and reviewed the determination from the Bureau of Elections. While we are disappointed with the finding we will certainly comply with the direction," he said.
In its findings the Bureau of Elections found Lahanas to have unknowingly violated the MCFA after he sought the opinion of East Lansing City Attorney Thomas Yeadon. Yeadon advised him before the publication of the Dialog that his column would be exempt from MCFA restrictions.
Yeadon also addressed the proposed issue at the Sept. 16, 2014 City Council meeting, stating in a memo that Lahanas was a public official with policy making ability and therefore his opinion was exempt from any restrictions of MFCA. The Bureau of Elections, however, chose not to punish Lahanas but provide a warning that future violations of the MFCA would be considered knowing violations and would result in misdemeanor charges.
A misdemeanor for not complying with the MCFA could result in either a fine of up to $1,000 dollars or up to a year in jail or both consequences if a single individual violates the law. However, if multiple people violate the MCFA it becomes a fine of up to $20,000, or a fine equal to the amount of money used to urge a particular vote.
The complaint of violation was filed by former East Lansing City Councilmember and current Executive Board Member of Neighborhoods 1st, a Political Action Committee, or PAC, Don Power.
“I am happy with the actual findings as it relates to the case,” Power said. “Now what they do with it, they haven’t done anything with it, that remains to be determined.”
Power filed the complaint on Nov. 2, 2014 and wrote, “Lahanas' advocacy on behalf of a ballot proposal that residents of East Lansing have advocated against appears to be a misuse of tax dollars to advance the City Manager's political agenda and is a violation of section 57 of the Michigan Campaign Finance Act (MFCA).”
Lahanas refuted the notion that he had a “political agenda” in his rebuttal of Power’s complaint. Lahanas also asked for the case to be dismissed stating his column fell under the exception of an "expression of views by an elected or appointed public official who has policy making responsibilities.”
The state, however, made the determination based off the lone sentence in the Dialog that reads “As East Lansing’s registered voters go to the polls on November 4, 2014, it is my hope that they will consider voting “yes” on the ballot proposal for the “Sale of City-Owned Property” located in the Park District Planning Area.”
Power and Lahanas do know each other as well, as Lahanas was a student in Power’s master’s degree course on labor relations at MSU. Power questioned Lahanas’ use of language writing in his second rebuttal that the course “discussed language and its implications.”
“In any kind of situation where there is wrongdoing there has to be a consequence,” Power said. “My recommendation would be that the Council basically give a written reprimand to both of them (Lahanas and Yeadon) for their personnel files because of this incident.”