Open up Lansing government

Originally posted February 19, 2014; updated May 7, 2014


Essays & Letters


Four years from now, when Lansing elects a new mayor, it must be someone who commits to open government. The people of Lansing should no longer put up with the humiliation of having to beg for information about the City and the Board of Water and Light.


This thought was prompted by the city attorney's response to a Freedom of Information Act request. On January 29, I asked for the meeting minutes of the city's two retirement boards for November, December and January, plus one meeting from 2012. I said I preferred PDF files, which could be emailed at no cost. The minutes average 5 pages each for a total of about 35 pages.


Assistant City Attorney Donald Kulhanek responded in a PDF file attached to an email. He said the records were available upon the receipt of $50.50 for labor, copying and mailing costs.


I'm not paying.


I will eventually get the November-January minutes for free. When she gets around to it, Karen Williams, the retirement board secretary, will provide them to the city clerk, who will combine them in a single PDF document with the minutes of several other board, commission and authority minutes and post them under "Documents Placed on File" on his website. I will download the document, print off the pages I need, scan them and post the images to my website, where all city retirement board minutes since 2010 are available - free of charge - at the click of a mouse.


Update: I gave in, paid the $50.50 and got copies of the November-January minutes. They never did get posted to the city clerk's website. Neither have the February and March minutes, but I got those, too - not with a FOIA request, but by asking for them at the city clerk's office (9th floor, City Hall). For copies, they charge $1.00 for the first page and $.10 for each additional page. I paid $2.80 for 19 pages. If the City Attorney had charged that rate, I would have paid $5.10 for 42 pages rather than $50.50.


The Open Meetings Act says in Section 9 that draft minutes must be available for public inspection within 8 business days of the meeting. Approved minutes must be available within 5 business days of the meeting in which they are approved. The Act doesn't require them to be posted on a website, however, so in Lansing you have to go to City Hall and track them down.

More retirement system information coming?

Senate Bill 797, an amendment to the Public Employee Retirement System Act signed by Governor Snyder on December 5, 2012, requires the City to post a lot more information about its retirement systems on its website. Unfortunately, retirement board meeting minutes are not included. Here is what is required:

  • The name of the system.

  • The names of the systemís investment fiduciaries.

  • The names of the systemís service providers.

  • The systemís assets and liabilities and changes in net plan assets on a plan-year basis.

  • The systemís funded ratio based upon the ratio of valuation assets to actuarial accrued liabilities on a plan-year basis.

  • The systemís investment performance net of fees on a rolling calendar-year basis for the previous 1-, 3-, 5-, 7-, and 10-year periods.

  • The systemís administrative and investment expenditures pursuant to standards of the governmental accounting standards board, including, but not limited to, a list of all expenditures made with soft dollars and all expenditures for professional training and education, including travel expenditures, by or on behalf of system board members that are paid by the system, if any.

  • The systemís itemized budget containing all projected expenditures, including, but not limited to, expenditures for professional training and education, including travel expenditures, by or on behalf of system board members that are paid by the system.

  • The following information as provided in the systemís most recent annual actuarial valuation report:

  • The number of active members.

  • The number of retirees and beneficiaries.

  • The average annual retirement allowance.

  • The total annual retirement allowances being paid.

  • The valuation payroll.

  • The employerís computed normal cost of benefits expressed as a percentage of valuation payroll.

  • The employerís total contribution rate expressed as a percentage of valuation payroll.

  • The weighted average of member contributions, if any.

  • The actuarial assumed rate of investment return.

  • The actuarial assumed rate of long-term wage inflation.

  • The smoothing method utilized to determine the funding value of assets.

  • The amortization method and period utilized for funding the systemís unfunded actuarial accrued liabilities, if any.

  • The systemís actuarial cost method.

  • Whether system membership is open or closed to specific groups of employees.

The law also requires the City to

  1. prepare and maintain written objectives, policies, and strategies with clearly defined accountability and responsibility for implementing and executing the retirement systemís investments and

  2. prepare and maintain written policies regarding ethics and professional training and education, including travel, which policies contain clearly defined accountability and reporting requirements for the systemís investment fiduciaries.

As with the retirement board meeting minutes, these last two items do not have to be published on the website.


Although the law went into effect in April 2013, it is not clear when the City is required to comply - and it hasn't. The law says the information is to published in "a summary annual report". Does that mean we can expect it in April 2014? Will it be part if the City's $2.2 million overhaul of the cityís technology infrastructure?


Even more information needed


There is even more I'd like to see on the City's website. For example:

Employees. I'd like to see the following information for all current employees:

  • Name

  • Department

  • Position

  • Salary

  • Hire date

  • Termination date

  • Total earnings for the previous calendar year as reported to the IRS, broken down as follows:

    • Regular pay

    • Overtime

    • Contract signing bonus

    • Gun allowance

    • Food allowance

    • Clothing allowance

    • Sick leave buy-back

    • Longevity

    • Final leave payment (for terminations)

I obtained some of that information for Board of Water & Light employees for 2008 and for City employees for 2010.


Retirements. For all retirements in the last few years, I'd like to see the following:

  • Name

  • Retirement date

  • Straight life pension amount

  • Years of service, purchased service, Reciprocal Retirement Act service

  • Age at retirement

  • Position

  • FAC

  • Multiplier

  • Salary

Something like this. And this. Sadly, pension details can no longer be revealed. Senate Bill 797, the same bill that requires all that pension plan information to be posted to a website, prohibits releasing pension calculation details to the public:

Except as otherwise provided in this subsection, information regarding the calculation of actual or estimated retirement benefits for members of the system is exempt from disclosure by the system or the political subdivision sponsoring the system pursuant to Section 13(1)(d) of the Freedom of Information Act, 1976 PA 442, MCI 15.243.

I've tried unsuccessfully to determine what senator was responsible for slipping that item into the bill. I even obtained a recording of the final Senate hearing on the bill. The provision was not mentioned. Maybe I should offer a reward.


Union contracts and dues. Information on union dues for members and fees for non-members should be available. I obtained union dues payment records for all City employees for one pay period in 2012.


All union contracts should be available, along with benefit information for non-union groups. I have all that on my website, but it hasn't been updated for a few years. You can also get the City's union contracts on the Mackinac Center's website.


The BWL's only union is the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW). I have only their 2008 contract.


Other contracts. Any other current City or BWL contract should be available, along with those for the last 5 years or so, such as that two-year, $1.2 million contract with Lansing-based Dewpoint Inc. Here are all 5 of the contracts for BWL managing director J. Peter Lark:






A summary of those contracts is here.


You probably can think of other information that could be published on the City's website. Anything not of a personal nature that might be of interest to the public should be there. It is the right thing to do, and having this information readily available would be useful to the city council, city administrators and city employees. It would certainly cut costs for the city attorney's office, which would have to deal with fewer FOIA requests.