City attorney receives raise after council interviewed other prospective candidates
The East Lansing City Council voted 3-2 to maintain and grant a raise to City Attorney Thomas Yeadon and his firm, McGinty, Hitch, Person, Yeadon & Anderson, P.C., after interviewing two other firms hours before at its June 18 meeting.
The agenda item was an add on, which Council member Aaron Stephens took issue with. Stephens said he didn’t understand why it wasn’t on the agenda beforehand.
“I think the mayor, who has authority over the agenda, had indicated that we would be discussing that,” Stephens said.
He said it would be good for the general public to know beforehand that the interviews and the decision were pre-determined before the council meeting.
“It causes me hesitation for me to want to make a decision tonight,” he said.
Council member Shanna Draheim echoed Stephen’s comment.
Meadows said it was a little concerning that this was overlooked, but later clarified that items can be added to the agenda moments before the meetings or before the agenda is approved during the meeting.
Mayor Mark Meadows said a negative to hiring Dickinson Wright was that they’d be operating out of Grand Rapids, indicating a lower rate of responsiveness than the other two applicants.
“In the long run, I just felt that they didn’t really understand what we do here and the challenges that we have,” he said.
Draheim and Stephens said they voted to hire Secrest Wardle because of a deeper bench of lawyers and a comparative price.
In terms of yearly cost to the city, Meadows calculated that the cost of services from McGinty, Yeadon's firm, would be $654,128, compared to $738,650 from Secrest Wardle and $924,350 from Dickinson Wright.
Yearly cost of legal services can fluctuate depending on the number of legal challenges the city receives.
Draheim said Secrest Wardle Executive Partner James Bradley was a contributing member to her City Council campaign in compliance with the city's ethics ordinance. The city has used the firm for negotiating the franchise agreement with the Lansing Board of Water and Light.
Draheim said Yeadon’s responsiveness and professionalism were key benefits to the services the firm has been providing.
Though she supported Yeadon's services as the city attorney, she was considering hiring a different legal team.
“Our legal costs are high in East Lansing compared to some cities of comparable and even larger size,” Draheim said. “Even when you compare us to other college towns, they’re a little high.”
Secrest Wardle represents other cities and Draheim said a benefit to having them represent East Lansing would be determining best practices from other cities.
“I think there is some benefit to going with a firm that provides a slightly deeper bench,” she said.
Stephens said he agrees with Draheim.
“The concept of risk management was brought up a lot during the Secrest Wardle interview,” Stephens said. “We do have a very activist council and we do have a very active community.”
Stephens said the city attorney needs to reign the council in to avoid the costs of legal hot water.
Meadows said a concern he had was the city’s district court work, and that Yeadon’s familiarity with a veterans and sobriety court was preferable.
Meadows said he was impressed with Secrest Wardle’s experience with development agreements, as well.
“We may need help there at some point in the future,” he said.
He said Yeadon’s firm already provided adequate risk management for the city.
“I expect (a city attorney) to be way more conservative than I am,” he said. “We have that and that is risk management.”
Mayor Pro Tem Erik Altmann said, “We are currently getting excellent legal representation from our current city attorney at a very fair price to the city."
Altmann highlighted three ordinances that Yeadon spearheaded, including an overlay districts law, which survived challenges up to the Michigan Supreme Court, the dangerous buildings ordinance that motivated the Park District owner to remove buildings from the area and a charter amendment that treated the income tax as a bond millage.
Altmann said 2017 data on municipal attorney salary shows the 25th percentile is $150 per hour.
Yeadon’s previous contract was $94 per hour, which Altmann said is unreasonably low.
Council member Ruth Beier agreed.
“One of the reasons Mr. Yeadon has been so underpaid for so long is because he works here and knows that the city didn’t have any money,” she said.
The rates in the proposed contract, Altmann said, is about $134 an hour, still below the 25th percentile.
“It is not a bargain to underpay people,” Altmann said.