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Wednesday, September 26,2012

Of watchdogs and gadflies

A devoted group in East Lansing, unsuccessful in seeking a City Council appointment, frustrates its target

by Andy Balaskovitz

They’re like the Lansing City Council regulars but better versed in legal issues and more litigious.

A trio of East Lansing City Council candidates who each unsuccessfully sought the appointment to one vacant seat earlier this month — Jeffrey Hank, Hans Larsen and Phil Bellfy — could be described as a major pain in City Attorney Tom Yeadon’s neck. While bringing allegations of fraud, mail tampering and corruption charges public, the three fancy themselves as watchdogs and whistleblowers of East Lansing government, particularly Yeadon’s office. Yet opponents, like Yeadon, say their charges are “ridiculous” and “frivolous” — their tactics unproductive and “harassment.”

The latest round in what’s been an ongoing battle with former City Attorney Dennis McGinty (who is Yeadon’s assistant) and Yeadon has the trio calling for Yeadon’s voluntary resignation from his contract position because he doesn’t live within the city limits, as required by a city ordinance. McGinty and Yeadon are partners at a private law firm a quarter of a mile from City Hall.

Yeadon served as assistant city attorney since 1985 until he basically switched jobs with McGinty, starting April 1. East Lansing’s residency requirement calls for “administrative officers, department heads and operations managers” who are hired on or after Nov. 1, 1995, to live in the city limits within six months of being hired. The list of positions in the City Code includes the city attorney, but not an assistant.

Hank, a local attorney himself, contends that Yeadon effectively served as city attorney over those years and therefore is subject to the requirement and has not met it over the years. Larsen and Bellfy, with Hank representing them, filed the complaint against Yeadon recently in the 30th Circuit Court. 

Meanwhile, Yeadon says he was “grandfathered” in because he was hired before 1995; the rule doesn’t require assistant city attorneys to live in the city; it hasn’t been six months since he was hired as city attorney; and he is actively seeking a new home within the city limits. He is also likely to get a 60-day extension from City Manager George Lahanas. Yeadon lives in Okemos. “It’s just another clear way to harass me,” Yeadon said of the civil complaint.

Hank said he would withdraw the complaint if Yeadon moves. “We feel totally vindicated,” Hank said of Yeadon’s decision to move into the city. “We haven’t withdrawn the lawsuit yet but we probably will.”

Taking a broader view of his efforts, Hank said: “Everything that happens in East Lansing — liquor licenses, developers — all has to go through the City Attorney’s Office. I’ve been fighting these guys for a couple of years now. They are basically the funnel by which all matters are handled.”

But Yeadon is quick to dismiss the men and their allegations as “nonsense.” “Some of it’s out-and-out lies; others it’s twisted facts; others it’s a little bit of fact, little bit of lies. But there’s no substance to any of it.”

While he says he’s “not worried” about any serious actions taken against the city or its employees as a result of the allegations, “I get a little concerned that if they say it too long too many times, maybe rational people will start to believe it.”

Hank has been representing clients in court on several matters having to do with alleged mailbox tampering and excessive citations for over-occupancy by East Lansing code enforcement officials. Four different cases are pending — two are being appealed to the Michigan Court of Appeals, one more is pending appeal in Ingham County Circuit Court and one is before the federal District Court of Western Michigan, Hank said. He and Bellfy also filed an Open Meetings Act violation earlier this year in circuit court, but that was thrown out by Judge Clinton Canady III — and Bellfy and Hank were both sanctioned $1,000 each for a letter Bellfy reportedly sent to McGinty saying he would tell the Federal Bureau of Investigation to back off a different investigation involving allegations of tax fraud. Bellfy has compiled all of the allegations in a report for the Attorney Grievance Commission of Michigan titled “2012 Comprehensive Report on Political Corruption in the City of East Lansing.”

Bellfy, a retired Michigan State University professor of American Studies and American Indian Studies, said his efforts began about five years ago. Bellfy also ran an unsuccessful City Council write-in campaign in 2009. He doesn’t plan to run again. “I’m just one of those crazy people who thinks government should be honest,” he said.

Larsen ran unsuccessfully for the Council in 2009 and 2011. On joining Bellfy and Hank on the residency suit, he said in an email: “Yeadon is not above the law, and we should not have to sue our City Attorney in order to force him to obey the law.” He added that most of his activism has been directed toward the activities of McGinty. McGinty could not be reached for comment. Hank said he is undecided about running for Council again.

The East Lansing watchdog culture doesn’t stop at Bellfy, Larsen and Hank. These three and residents Eliot Singer and Alice Dreger regularly track meetings, post documents and write screeds on www.publicresponse.com, an open forum for such citizen participation.

“It’s unfortunate that they tried to use their status as applicants for City Council positions to give themselves credibility they otherwise wouldn’t have,” Yeadon said. Looking at the allegations as a whole, he added: “I would get this email with outrageous claims of corruption. If you really want to solve cases, calm down the rhetoric.”

Meanwhile, Council members past and present have mixed perceptions of the three candidates and their government oversight.

Mayor Diane Goddeeris says she is looking into the allegations and has been “reaching out” to other parties involved. “Any time a citizen wants to comment on something, Council members should be open to listening to them,” she said, before noting that “no member of Council until this point has brought anything forward” to take formal action on allegations.

Mayor Pro Tem Nathan Triplett takes a harsher view, pointing out the failed campaign attempts. “Having been rebuked repeatedly by East Lansing voters and the courts, these men have fallen back on bullying, plain and simple. I don’t think their contribution has been one that has furthered community dialog.”

And then there’s former Councilman Donald Powers, who was elected in November but resigned 10 months later because he felt the Council didn’t do its “homework on big issues.” Some saw Powers as the type of watchdog candidate who may not share the same tactics as Bellfy, Larsen and Hank, but the same spirit. Powers said he came on the job with “some concerns” about the legal advice being received on certain projects, particularly the financing of City Center II, a $100 million project that died earlier this month. 

“Our society does not appreciate people who speak out,” Powers said about Bellfy, Larsen and Hank, describing their tactics as “a little bombastic. But you know what? They get organizations to think. I think that is an important role they play.”

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