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EL hands over personal records from council members after settlement reached in lawsuit

City of East Lansing
Posted at 8:09 PM, Mar 17, 2022
and last updated 2022-03-17 20:09:09-04

EAST LANSING, Mich. — The City of East Lansing has agreed to turn over a handful of records from the personal devices of one current city council member and two former members, after being sued for denying a Freedom of Information Act request.

Attorney Mike Nichols was representing East Lansing police officer Andrew Stephenson, who was accused of excessive force, but later cleared by a Washtenaw County prosecutor.

“We represented an East Lansing police officer who we felt was unfairly smeared in public in particular by members of the city council at that time," Nichols said.

Nichols said he filed a FOIA request asking for records from city issued phones and personal devices used for city business of former council members Aaron Stephens and Ruth Beir and current council member Jessy Gregg.

“As part of investigating the case and our claims as well as our defenses of our client from all of this public outcry and criminal investigation, we submitted Freedom of Information Act requests based in part on what we independently thought we might be able to find,” Nichols said.

Nichols request was denied. He was told the city didn't have the documents even from the taxpayer funded cell phones given to council members.

When a council member's term is over, they get to keep devices like their cellphones, tablets and laptops so the phone record being requested were in possession of third party cell phone providers.

“We were told by the city no you can’t have that because we’ve given these personal devices to these elected council members. We don’t expect them to give it back to us and so that’s not public,” Nichols said.

Mayor Pro Tem Jessy Gregg also said the FOIA was denied because it was too broad.

“It basically just said, you know, complete browser history, all text messages, there was no narrowing of the subject matter,” Gregg said.

The city also felt that it was an invasion of privacy.

“We have public lives as public officials, but we're also still people and still have the rights that regular people have to expect a certain level of privacy," Gregg said. "There's also wording in the FOIA restrictions about just basically an undue burden in terms of number of documents and staff time and et cetera.”

Gregg said Nichols had every right to ask for the records, they just needed to be more specific.

“If any member of the public thinks that something underhanded is going on, then you have every right to FOIA it, but if it's completely open ended like that, then you can probably expect to get a denial," Gregg said. "So you have to actually tell us what you're looking for, so that we can find it for you.”

The two sides reached a settlement that requires the city to turn over records from both city issued and personal devices with a narrow list of specific terms.

“What we did was we tried to more narrowly tailor search terms whether it was someone's name or a topic like for example George Floyd or physical restraint,” Nichols said.

He and his team received the documents on Tuesday. Nichols said he believes the settlement was fair.

“Really it was making it right and making sure that they did not try to hide in the darkness because again, self government is not going to work in the darkness, it will die,” Nichols said.

Nichols and his team are sorting through the documents they received before deciding on their next step.

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Mikayla Temple

Mikayla Temple

1:39 PM, Jan 05, 2021

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