Mayor, former mayor of East Lansing resign amid heated City Council meeting

Megan Banta Carol Thompson
Lansing State Journal

EAST LANSING – Two East Lansing city officials resigned after a dispute over the city attorney contract during a combative City Council meeting Tuesday night.

Mayor Ruth Beier and former Mayor Mark Meadows resigned about 2½ hours into the meeting, held remotely because of the coronavirus, after the council voted 3-2 to terminate East Lansing's contract with attorney Tom Yeadon, of McGinty, Hitch, Housefield, Person, Yeadon & Anderson, P.C. on Oct. 1.

"I'm going to leave this circus to the fools that are left," Beier said before she signed off the online meeting. "I do not think it's a good omen for East Lansing."

The two high-profile city leaders' departures followed a tense argument over Yeadon's contract and accusations some council members discussed and agreed to revoke that contract outside of the public eye.

They leave two vacancies on the five-person council. Those will be filled within 30 days by City Council appointment. 

Contract brought forward because of 'need for change'

Yeadon has worked as East Lansing's city attorney since 2012 and an assistant attorney since 1985. He also is attorney for Mason and Watertown Township and has worked for Lansing and Ingham County.

Council members renewed his contract last year, agreeing to pay $654,125 through June 30, 2022.

Yeadon could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

Councilmember Lisa Babcock, who asked for Yeadon's contract to be placed on the Tuesday meeting agenda, was vague that night about her concerns with his performance. She cited her previous issues with his conduct, particularly around his lack of transparency.

Ultimately, City Council doesn't need a reason to cut the contract short, she said Tuesday.

"Under the contract, no reasons are necessary," she added when pressed. "I think we’ve had many experiences on this council that speak to the need for change."

Babcock was more specific about her concerns during an interview Wednesday.

She questioned Yeadon's handling of the Freedom of Information Act, saying he promoted putting roadblocks in front of requests for public documents instead of fulfilling them.

He also signed off on a project using federal funds to build a retaining wall outside his firm's office, she said. 

In 2018, the city was ordered to return $134,330 to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which described the project as a "conflict of interest." It also spent $20,000 on a settlement over a lawsuit with a city resident over the retaining wall.

Read more:Feds tell East Lansing to return $134,330 spent on 'ineligible' sidewalk project

Babcock also accused Yeadon of unfair and racist conduct as a prosecutor, one of his duties as city attorney.

She cited the cases of Uwimana Gasito, Anthony Zarwea  and Chandler Lee, all of whom were arrested following a fight in February and charged with misdemeanors by Yeadon.

Those charges were split along racial lines, Babcock said.

Yeadon charged Gasito, who is Black, with resisting arrest and disorderly conduct. He was injured during the arrest, and those charges have since been dropped.

Yeadon charged Zarwea, who also is Black, with disorderly conduct, assault and resisting arrest. 

He charged Lee, who is white, with disorderly conduct.

"That, speaking simply for myself, was the final straw," she said Wednesday. "We will not be party to that kind of criminal prosecution."

Yeadon explained during the public comment portion of Tuesday's meeting that those charges were requested by officers involved in the arrest. 

Read more:Teen says East Lansing police arrested him for recording, shoved him to the ground handcuffed

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Dramatic meeting ends in resignations

Beier said she found it "ridiculous" that Babcock didn't identify a reason she wanted to end Yeadon's contract.

"Just because you can fire someone without cause at will doesn’t mean you should," she said, "and no decent person would."

Beier and Meadows agreed council should have brought their concerns to Yeadon's attention and given him a chance to fix them. 

They also accused their colleagues of violating the Open Meetings Act by talking about the vote individually before the meeting rather than collectively in the public view. 

"People need to talk to each other," Meadows said. "What they don’t need to do is make decisions in concert."

The OMA allows elected public officials to informally canvas their colleagues about their leanings on specific issues. Deliberating should be done in public, the act states. Deliberating privately is a violation of the law.

Babcock said she canvassed other council members but did not violate the law.

Councilmember Jessy Gregg, who voted to terminate Yeadon's contract, contended their Tuesday discussion was the most transparent she's seen, though she asked for "deeper parliamentary procedure training" and more communication.

Both would help new members avoid pitfalls like the ones Beier and Meadows were accusing them of making, she said.

Beier, who was first elected in 2013, voiced her displeasure with the vote as soon as it was final.

"I'm humiliated to be a part of this council," she said. 

She thanked Yeadon for his help over the years and apologized for the other councilmembers, describing them as her "neophyte, foolish colleagues."

Then she resigned. 

She told City Manager George Lahanas she thinks he should start looking for a new job "right away" because she thinks the three members will go after him next, adding she'll happily give him a job reference.

"It's been great working with two of you," Beier said in closing. "The rest of you, sayonara."

Babcock on Wednesday said she did not intend to seek Lahanas' removal.

As Beier left the Zoom meeting, Meadows raised his hand and waved it to get his colleagues' attention. 

Meadows — a former mayor who was first elected in the early '90s then again in 2015 after six years in the Michigan House of Representatives — said he had been contemplating for several months his decision to resign from a leadership role in the city he loves.

Meadows said he is having a hard time fixing what he considers to be "an abysmally uneducated approach to things" and said he feels out of place on the current City Council.

"I think these three should have other remaining members on council who maybe share their viewpoints, and this gives them an opportunity to have that," Meadows said.

He also left the meeting.

Remaining council members disappointed with resignations

Aaron Stephens, formerly mayor pro tem, has now been sworn in as mayor. He thanked Beier and Meadows for their service and said he's "learned a lot from both of them." 

Their resignations were "extremely unexpected," he said in a statement sent through a private spokesperson, who said Stephens would not answer questions from a reporter.

"It is their decision to make, but I can’t help but feel that we lost something in the city tonight on multiple fronts," Stephens said of their decision to resign.

Gregg said she was disappointed in Beier and Meadows, whose decisions to "fold up their toys and leave" were immature. 

What's next?

Beier and Meadows sent written resignations to city officials Tuesday night. 

City residents can apply to fill the vacant positions. The remaining City Council members must choose candidates within 30 days, Babcock said. 

Council and staff are working to administer an application process, according to a press release from the city. More information on that process will be provided as it becomes available. 

"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 a statement. "We are prepared to work with the City Council to make sure that these important positions are filled as quickly as possible."

Contact reporter Megan Banta at mbanta@lsj.com. Follow her on Twitter @MeganBanta_1. Contact reporter Carol Thompson at ckthompson@lsj.com.