Wednesday, October 28, 2020

East Lansing lost its mayor, city attorney and a council member in one meeting — what happened?

July 15, 2020
<p>Mayor Ruth Beier laughs at fellow Council Member Mark Meadows&#x27; comment about Michigan State basketball playing Duke, her two alma maters, on the night of Dec. 3, 2019. Mayor Beier answers questions from the public at a Q&amp;A hosted on Dec. 3, 2019, at 54B District Court.</p>

Mayor Ruth Beier laughs at fellow Council Member Mark Meadows' comment about Michigan State basketball playing Duke, her two alma maters, on the night of Dec. 3, 2019. Mayor Beier answers questions from the public at a Q&A hosted on Dec. 3, 2019, at 54B District Court.

Photo by Lauren DeMay | The State News

In a turbulent and emotion-filled East Lansing City Council meeting, Mayor Ruth Beier and Council Member Mark Meadows announced their resignation following a vote Tuesday night to terminate City Attorney Tom Yeadon’s contract, effective Oct. 1.

"I'm humiliated to be a part of this council. ... I'm going to leave this circus to the fools that are left," Beier said, warning City Manager George Lahanas that he should begin searching for another job as well. "It's been great working with two of you, the rest of you — sayonara.”

Council Member Lisa Babcock proposed the termination of Yeadon's contract on the agenda. Mayor Pro Tem Aaron Stephens and Council Member Jessy Gregg supported it, passing on a vote of 3-2.

A press release from the city sent on Wednesday evening said council must appoint two individuals to serve until the next regularly scheduled election in November 2021. 

The City Council will work with its staff to administer an application process for the positions, which will be followed by public interviews and appointments, the release said.

“In the midst of a very difficult time for our community, state and nation, we need to focus on moving forward and continuing to provide the vital services that our community needs,” Lahanas said in the statement. “We are prepared to work with the City Council to make sure that these important positions are filled as quickly as possible.”

Stephens’ oath of office was administered Wednesday as he steps into his new position as mayor.

Communications firm Byrum & Fisk, co-owned by Michigan State University Trustee Dianne Byrum, sent a statement from Stephens on Wednesday evening.

“We accept the resignations of Mayor Beier and Councilmember Meadows and truly appreciate their service and dedication to the City of East Lansing," Stephens said in the statement. "We have big challenges and big opportunities in East Lansing, and I’m committed to a fair process for appointing qualified council members as soon as possible so we don’t miss a beat and ensure a smooth transition. COVID-19 continues to present unprecedented challenges in East Lansing, and the new council must maintain our commitment to serving the needs of our community during this public health crisis. Every day we see new examples of racial inequities across the country, and our new council must address these issues in our own community and continue supporting all residents and their opportunity to succeed."

Stephens also said the new council must also commit to local small businesses and to work "hand-in-glove" with Michigan State University to forge a stronger bond with campus leaders and to help ensure a safe return for all Spartans.

Why was the city attorney fired?

"I think we've had many experiences on this council that speak to the need for change," Babcock said in the meeting.

Babcock said on Wednesday there have been some differences for a long time. She said she had been extremely frustrated with Yeadon’s position on the Freedom of Information Act, stating she thought they needed to be much more transparent than they had been. 

“I also am deeply troubled by racial prosecution,” Babcock said.

Babcock said on Wednesday the city mishandled Uwimana Gasito's arrest in February because Gasito's brother Anthony Zarwea faced a more severe assault charge for doing the same things as the white man, Chandler Lee, had in that situation.

According to court records, Zarwea was charged with disorderly conduct for resisting arrest and assaulting an officer with a personal bond set at $500. Lee was charged with disorderly conduct for loud, boisterous conduct in public with a personal bond set at $200.

At the meeting Tuesday, Yeadon said both Zarwea and Lee had entered a guilty plea agreement for their charges.

Babcock said on Wednesday the fact that the city's prosecutor determined the charges, and that they were separate charges, is unacceptable.

Babcock said in the meeting that under the city attorney's contract, no reasons are necessary to propose a termination.

Beier said the termination was ridiculous, stating the basic decency of hiring and firing requires reasoning.

“Just because you can fire somebody without cause, at will doesn’t mean that you should, and no decent human would,” Beier said. 

Instead of public action, Beier said a “grown up council” would have sat in an executive session and told Yeadon what they would like him to fix before firing him. The way council chose to handle things, she said “is not only unfair, it’s nearly inhuman.”

In a request for comment, Beier said via email that her resignation came as council is completely dysfunctional with the remaining members choosing to fire Yeadon without reason and predicts they will do the same to Lahanas. 

“During a pandemic, during a recession, during the changes that we need to make sure that people of color feel safe in East Lansing, these three political neophytes decide but it’s a good time (to) fire our top-level management — who by the way — do excellent work,” Beier said.  “I just can’t work with those people.”

Babcock said council will put out a Request For Proposals (RFP) and ask law firms to submit applications for providing legal services.

Gregg apologized to city staff for the way the termination was introduced, claiming inexperience as a council member in addressing these sorts of issues. Following the resignation of Beier and Meadows, Gregg said while she admits responsibility in the “clunky” way this was introduced, the decision by the two to “fold up their toys and leave” was likewise immature.

“I have been accused of immature behavior and reprehensible actions tonight and you are absolutely allowed to think whatever you think in your opinion of how I have had a part in handling this," Gregg said. "But, I think that the actions of two elected people who have decided to vacate their seats because they didn’t get their way is equally reprehensible."

In a Facebook post following the meeting, Gregg called Beier’s implication that the remaining council members would come for Lahanas next unfair and clarified that she is not coming for anyone. 

“I think we are poised to take a very firm and positive first step towards police reform in East Lansing. I will not do anything to endanger that important work,” Gregg said in the post.

Insight from public comment

Community activists Edmund Rushton and Farhan Sheikh-Omar called for the termination of Yeadon’s contract during public comment stating a loss of trust in his ability to fulfill the duties and expectations of his role.

Sheikh-Omar said body cam footage from the East Lansing Police Department shows Zarwea, arrested outside a 7-Eleven in February, being first shoved to the ground by a second party. In prosecution, Zarwea faced charges for disorderly conduct, assault and battery and resisting arrest.

“At this time, this is no longer a miscarriage of justice, this is a systemic problem rooted in our inability to sentence people properly and to offer people the right charges,” Rushton said. “I hope that you take this discussion about Mr. Yeadon’s contract seriously because I think he has done a great disservice to this community, and I am ashamed to call him my city attorney.”

Sheikh-Omar said five months ago he addressed council warning that if he did not see structural change with meaningful reform he would call or the boycott of East Lansing. On Tuesday, he said Yeadon poses a big problem to the community and called on council to use this opportunity to correct it.

“The city of East Lansing and their local businesses are already suffering from COVID-19," Sheikh-Omar said, calling on council to fire Yeadon within 72 hours. "The last thing you guys want me to do is hold a press conference and say that the city of East Lansing is unsafe for African Americans and lay out the evidence that I have against you guys. That is the last thing your citizens want to see."

Did the city break the law?

Beier denounced the potential liability of the council's actions, stating that conspiring with council members outside of a public meeting is in violation of the Open Meetings Act.

According to the handbook for the act, a member of a public body may informally canvas to determine where votes would lie on a particular issue without being in violation, so long as no decisions are made and discussions are not done in an attempt to avoid the Open Meetings Act.

Matt Bach, director of communications at the Michigan Municipal League said it comes down to whether or not members of a public body deliberate toward a decision outside of a public meeting. If it was found that they did so, Bach said they would likely be in violation of the Open Meetings Act.

Gerald Fisher, a professor of law at Cooley Law School who has served as a general counsel for cities, villages and townships as well as a special counsel for government entities throughout the state said the Open Meetings Act outlines that a quorum of a public body may only meet in an open session.

The key factor, Fisher said, is the need for that quorum, meaning enough people need to be present at the discussion to pass a motion to do something. If the number to establish a quorum was four people and three people met together to talk about an agenda item, that would count as a violation of the act.

Stephens said if this meeting violated the Open Meetings Act, then it was also violated in the council's 3-2 vote to extend the contract with Yeadon and his firm with a raise last June. When the renewal was passed, he said, it was obvious that three members of council had discussion beforehand, so claiming adherence to the Open Meetings Act now is disingenuous.

The aftermath

In her Facebook post, Gregg said while she did discuss this issue with Babcock ahead of the meeting, that is allowed under the regulations. She said that her only conversation with Stephens was a brief phone call confirming that she would be the second council member requesting the consideration of Yeadon’s contract be added to the agenda.

Gregg said she spoke with Beier and Meadows only after the agenda came out, focused primarily around their extreme displeasure with the way the contract discussion had been handled. 

“I know there are people who are angry with me for the way this was handled, but I am sticking around to pick up the pieces," Gregg said in the post. "I will continue to do the job that I was elected to do in the way that I feel best serves this community. If you do not agree with me and you would like to see things done differently in the future, there are two seats available on the East Lansing City Council, you should apply to serve. We need to fill the seats within 30 days.”

Meadows underscored the potential for a violation of the Open Meetings Act and announced his resignation, stating the process for firing Yeadon was "unprofessional, improper and demeaning" after alleging Babcock told him last week there were three votes to terminate Yeadon's contract.

"I love this city. ... Today though, I'm closing this chapter," Meadows said.

Meadows said his decision to resign was not spontaneous. He had been considering it for several months. The termination of Yeadon’s contract, he said, prompted him to make the decision last night.

“I find myself less tolerant that I used to be, and I have a harder time turning what I consider to be an abysmally uneducated approach to things into something positive,” Meadows said. "While I have been on council we have dealt with many weighty issues and civil unrest always with a careful and studied approach, and I don’t feel that’s happening here."

Beier said council members agreed at the start of the session to adhere to the concept of transparency — something she said Gregg, Babcock and Stephens all consistently preach.

“All three of them violated that most basic public trust by working on this together and then putting an item on the agenda that didn’t describe what it was, that had no attachment … to fire one of the most important people on staff,” Beier said. “So, take your transparency and put it where it belongs, someplace dark because that’s where that is. There is no transparency among you three — either that, or you don’t know what the word means.”

Gregg said the discussion was the most transparent thing that has happened on City Council since her election to the group.

Next steps for the city

Now-Mayor Aaron Stephens closed the meeting and said he couldn’t help but feel the city had lost something on multiple fronts tonight.

Stephens said this will be his first and only term as mayor.

"I do not intend on running for reelection, and while I will take this role and do my absolute best to serve the people of East Lansing, I do not intend to run for reelection for this role,” Stephens said. “To members of city staff, to members of the community, I want to say that we will continue, we will preserve and we will keep in the fight to make East Lansing a beautiful place for all.”

Following the meeting’s conclusion, Communications Coordinator Mikell Frey said they have been overwhelmed with calls and emails.

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