By Tom Travis
A botched bid for the city’s waste collection contract in 2021, revealed in a June 2021 city council meeting, launched an investigative hearing that lasted nearly a year and over two different city councils. One year later, in Wednesday’s Finance Committee meeting, city council voted 5-2 “to end all legal services and investigative hearing.”
How the council got to an investigative hearing
In a June 2021 city council meeting then Councilperson Monica Galloway (7th Ward) requested to question the City’s Chief Financial Officer (CFO) Shelbi Frayer about the waste collection bid process with Republic Services. Galloway questioned Frayer about the timing of what she knew and when she knew it concerning errors in the bid process.
Frayer said she discovered in mid-May 2021 the bid process protocols were not followed correctly. Galloway presented an inter-office memo from DPW Director Michael Brown to Frayer in April with details she believed showed Frayer knew sooner than mid-May.
Frayer maintained that she did not know that the bid opening protocols were not followed properly until mid-May.
In that June 2021 city council meeting, both Galloway and Councilperson Eric Mays (1st Ward) were not satisfied with Frayer’s response about the bid process protocols, prompting Mays to make a motion to establish an investigative hearing.
A new city council was elected in November 2021 and carried on with the investigative hearings.
Attorney Jack Belzer seeks “direction and guidance” from city council
Attorney Jack Belzer was retained by the previous city council to conduct an investigative hearing into the awarding of a waste collection contract bid. Genesee Circuit Court Judge David J. Newblatt was assigned to enforce subpoenas issued for some witnesses, including Flint Mayor Sheldon Neeley.
At its June 8 meeting, Belzer informed the city council “Newblatt, without comment, has announced that the matter has been dismissed without prejudice.” Belzer explained this means the council can still go back, if need be, to enforce any subpoenas. Some of the witnesses that have testified in the investigative hearing have been DPW Director Mike Brown, former City of Flint CFO Shelbi Frayer, DPW Director John Daly, Mayor Neeley, Lauren Riley from the finance department, Robert Widigan.
Belzer asked the council for “direction” as to what they want to do at this point. Additional unnamed witnesses have yet to be called to testify.
Council Vice-President Allie Herkenroder (Ward 7) made a motion to end all legal services and investigation regarding the waste contract bid. The motion was seconded by Councilperson Eva Worthing (Ward 9).
Councilperson Eric Mays (Ward 1), who called for the investigative hearing one year ago, immediately responded that he would be voting ‘no’ to end the investigative hearing. Mays praised Attorney Belzer for his work on the investigative hearing.
Councilperson Tonya Burns (Ward 6) stated that she would not vote to end the investigative hearing, stating, “there is a problem with process and procedure of how the city conducts bids. We need to know where the errors were in this process. Before the end of our term we will have to vote on a new waste collection contract.”
Burns recalled some details that were revealed during previous investigative hearings for the waste collection bid contract including: a contract being shredded and city employees testifying that they were threatened with losing their job.
“I’m torn” – Councilperson Dennis Pfeiffer
Councilperson Dennis Pfeiffer (Ward 8) said he was “torn” on the issue.
If the council continues with the hearing, “Is anything going to change?” Pfeiffer asked.
“We all know it was wrong. We all know that it wasn’t done properly,” Pfeiffer continued. “We all know that we’re paying more than we should be. In my mind that’s not a dispute. Do we have ordinances about shredding documents? Do we need to have those? Yes. Do we need to look at our purchasing ordinance? Yes.
“I’m not sure what we’re going to find out [by continuing with the investigative hearing]that’s going to change my mind. We just need to act on what’s needs to happen. I’m not sure what way I’m going to vote at this point,” he stated.
“Clearly need to update and change…” Council Vice-President Herkenroder
“I echo the sentiments of my colleague in the eighth ward,” Herkenroder said, adding it was clear from watching the recordings of the investigative hearings “there are things that clearly need to update and change the language” of the purchasing ordinance.
“I am not comfortable in spending over $25,000 in legal fees to talk about that. We already know that we need to change that,” she said.
Herkenroder explained the reason she made the motion was to act in a “fiscally responsible matter.”
“I’m not torn…” Councilperson Eric Mays
Mays, wanting the investigative hearing to continue, added, “Mr. Pfeiffer said he’s torn….I’m not torn.” Mays praised Attorney Belzer for his work with the investigative hearing, adding, “part of my vision is that he’s [Belzer] gonna be the one to help us put these ordinances and policies in place.”
“Disappointed” with the investigative hearings – Councilperson Ladel Lewis
Councilperson Ladel Lewis (Ward 2) said she hadn’t followed the hearings closely before she was elected but engaged in the hearings after being elected “to learn about the matter.”
Lewis added she was disappointed in the process of the investigative hearings calling out Councilperson Mays, who chaired each of the investigative hearings, accusing him of “belittling” witnesses. Lewis added, “I was not happy with the level of disrespect between council and the administration. It was getting us nowhere. If we had been making progress I might agree to go on.”
“I feel like we can work with the administration to get the [bid] process together. And we can standardize a process like other municipalities,” Lewis concluded.
EVM Managing Editor Tom Travis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.