Wednesday, November 25, 2020

East Lansing City Council selects new city attorney

September 4, 2020
Photo by Joe Dandron | The State News

It took nearly five hours, but the City of East Lansing has picked a new city attorney. 

After four, 45-minute interviews with four firms and public comment from citizens in the community, the city council voted 4-1 to begin contract negotiations with Foster Swift Collins & Smith Law Firm to be the new city attorney, one that will replace Tom Yeadon, whose contract is up on Oct. 1. 

“I think I am leaning towards Foster Swift as my selection,” Mayor Aaron Stephens said prior to a motion to vote on the candidates. “Both in considerations with cost and response.”

The only vote against the decision came from Council Member Jessy Gregg.

The council finalized the four candidates during its Aug. 27 meeting for the city attorney’s position on Thursday evening. The four candidates were Foster Swift, Clark Hill PLC, Rosati Schultz and George Brookover. 

All four underwent 45-minute interviews with set questions asked to every firm and a session of follow-up questions asked by council members. The two finalists that it came down to, were Foster Swift and Clark Hill PLC.

“They did answer the question very well about their experience with library law,” Council Member Dana Watson said during discussion. “That felt really comfortable and was something I know we said we value for the city of East Lansing. They also talked about the open meetings (open meetings act) and the FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) and so it just made me feel like they would teach us stuff. They would make sure we were doing things legally.”

After the vote cleared, the City Manager George Lahanas will proceed to begin contract negotiations with the firm. Lahanas said during the meeting that a contract could be finalized potentially around Sept. 15. 

Founded in 1902, Foster Swift Collins & Smith, PC has operated in Michigan as a professional firm with more than 93 attorneys, its application states.

The firm, per its application, has operated as a Michigan professional corporation since 1989 and has Michigan-based offices in Lansing, Southfield, Grand Rapids, Detroit, Holland and St. Joseph.

“If offered the opportunity to serve the city of East Lansing, Michael Homier, the firm’s Municipal Practice Group leader will serve as the city attorney. Mark Koerner and the other attorneys listed in this proposal may also provide their expertise and assistance in serving the legal needs of the city,” the proposal from the firm said.

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion a common theme

A question asked to all four firms involved diversity, equity and inclusion. 

“Diversity, equity and inclusion are not just words in this city, what racial justice work has your firm been involved in? How does diversity show in your firm and how does inclusion matter?” Stephens asked the representatives from Foster Swift Law Firm. 

Foster Swift lawyer Anne Seurynck said that the firm formed a diversity committee in 1993.

A follow-up question that was posed to each candidate as well concerned a previous case in East Lansing, the arrest of Uwimana Gasito and the subsequent controversy that surrounded the case was brought up by Council Member Lisa Babcock. 

Babcock told the State News in July that the city mishandled the arrest, which caused her to propose for the termination of Yeadon’s contract. 

“As you know one of your tasks will be prosecuting the city’s misdemeanors,” Babcock said during the interview with Foster Swift. “There was a high profile incident earlier this year where we saw a lot of videotapes and it was the conclusion of some, I’m in that group, that two identical sets of behavior occurred under the law but the charges were different. The only discernible difference between the two gentlemen was their race.”

“I’m curious, whether you share my opinion, but also how you would approach cases to be sure that there is no inference of racial prosecution,” Babcock said.

The same question, worded similarly, was posed to each candidate. 

Final steps

East Lansing began the search for a new city attorney and opened up applications following a July 14 city council meeting that saw former mayor Ruth Beier and Council Member Mark Meadows resign after a 3-2 vote passed to terminate Yeadon’s contract.

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.

Now, the city council will be presented with the contract after a contract is finalized with the firm and presented for a vote at a city council meeting. 

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