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East Lansing must hand over a slew of records after settling lawsuit over public information request

City of East Lansing

East Lansing must hand over a slew of records after settling a lawsuit over a public information request.

That includes photos, text messages, browser histories and computer files from personal and city-issued cell phones and computers belonging to one current and two former City Council members.

Attorney Mike Nichols sued last year when the city denied most of his request for documents under the Freedom of Information Act. He'll get some of those records at no cost under a settlement approved this week by City Council. The city also agreed to reimburse Nichols for $5,000 in attorney fees and costs.

"The big problem with the denial was that democracy dies in the dark," Nichols said. "We didn't want to let the city get away with their answer. It was really a fight for the freedom of information."

When he requested the records in 2020, Nichols was representing city police officer Andrew Stephenson who was accused of excessive force. A Washtenaw County prosecutor later cleared Stephenson by determining the force was justified.

Nichols' initial records request spanned four pages and sought records from city-issued phones and computers belonging to then-City Council Members Aaron Stephens, Ruth Beier and Jessy Gregg. He also sought records from personal devices "used for city business."

East Lansing's city clerk, however, declined to provide most of those records by arguing the city didn't have them.

Phone records like text messages and pictures were actually in the possession of third-party cell phone providers like Verizon, the city argued. Officials also said that even taxpayer-funded cell phones, laptops and tablets given to council members by the city were not actually in the city's possession because council members get to keep those items once their terms end.

"Such devices are deemed valueless after four or more years of service to the Councilmembers and the City has no interest in their return," then-Mayor Aaron Stephens explained in a letter responding to Nichols' appeal of the city clerk's FOIA denial.

Stephens upheld most of that initial denial, although he agreed to release certain emails from council members' city accounts.

Under the settlement, however, the city will be turning over records from both city-issued and personal devices, although the list is narrower than what Nichols originally requested.

Now, instead of releasing almost all records from those devices except for what could specifically be redacted under exemptions to FOIA, the city is agreeing to provide files referencing the police department. That involves files referencing a list of people including Stephenson, former Interim Police Chief Steve Gonzales and Ingham County Prosecutor Carol Siemon, as well as files using words and phrases like "police brutality" and "chokehold."

"Our protest was not denying them information that was relevant to what they were looking for," Gregg said. "It was just saying that it was much too broad. So we came to an agreement with them, they narrowed down their list of asks and we've given them what they asked."

Nichols says he plans to review the materials provided under the settlement before determining whether to pursue additional action against the city. He said he requested records from Stephens, Gregg and Beier because he felt they were maligning his client with public criticism.

"We were looking for evidence of, you know, some sort of a connection between the politics of the social justice movement with targeting Officer Stephenson at that time because we thought, you know, he was being unfairly excoriated by members of the city council for political gain," Nichols said.

Gregg disputes that characterization.

"I have problems with some of our policies and some of our procedures, but I've repeatedly said that I don't think that the officers are the problems, that if we have a problem with the way they're doing their job, we need to correct the procedures," she said Wednesday.

Beier, who resigned from City Council in 2020, did not respond to a request for comment.

Stephens says he supports releasing some records involving city business, but said Nichols' original FOIA request was too expansive.

"Trying to get all of my text messages and pictures on my phone and stuff, like, even personal devices, kind of felt like a little bit of an intimidation scare tactic to me," said Stephens, who stepped down from his council seat last year to pursue graduate school. "I think that especially elected officials should be able to voice their opinion to the community on different things."

Protests broke out in East Lansing after body camera footage showed Stephenson placing his knee on a man's head and neck after arriving to back up another officer following a 2019 traffic stop. Stephenson said the man bit him and the Washtenaw County prosecutor determined Stephenson's actions were necessary to prevent "greater injury" when the man struggled to get away.

The man, who is Black, was charged with resisting and obstructing arrest, although the Ingham County's Prosecutor's Office later dropped those charges after reviewing body camera footage.

A review by the Michigan State Police eventually cleared Stephenson, who is white, in a separate excessive force complaint involving the arrest of another Black man in 2020.

Those incidents, along with national protests over police conduct, prompted a reckoning on the City Council. Among other changes, East Lansing created a citizen-led police oversight commission and adopted a resolution asking prosecutors to be more discerning before charging people with disorderly conduct.

"The community was, was really, really angry and I think rightfully so," Stephens said. "They wanted change and that's what happened, and is what's going to continue to happen."

Sarah Lehr is a politics and civics reporter for WKAR News.
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