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Ypsi city council investigating whether housing developer paid for city officials' trip to China

Two men at a square desk with flags in the background at a city hall.
City Manager Darwin McClary said Ypsilanti Economic Development Director Beth Ernat informed him the trip was paid for by the developer through email on Sep. 25, though Ernat was not in attendance to confirm.

The Ypsilanti City Council will investigate a recent trip to China by four city officials including the mayor and mayor pro tem.

City officials took the trip to meet with Chinese investors of a proposed major housing and retail development in Ypsilanti and learn more about Chinese design and culture. A Detroit Metro Times report raised concerns that the developer, Troy-based Amy Foster, may have paid the cost of the city officials’ travel, which city attorney John Barr said would violate Ypsilanti’s ethics ordinance.

“[The ordinance] prohibits gifts from public employees or to public employees,” Barr said, “and there’s a presumption that if you get a big gift that they’re expecting something in return. That’s the primary ethical issue in this matter.”

Ypsilanti Mayor Amanda Edmonds, Mayor Pro Tem  Nicole Brown, Prolice Chief Tony DeGiusti and Economic Development Director Beth Ernat all attended the trip to China.

Edmonds and Brown both recused themselves from discussing the trip to China at Tuesday night’s Ypsilanti city council meeting. The remaining city council members and city staff weren’t able to definitively say who paid for the trip, what the total cost was, or if city officials who attended had any knowledge of the trips funding at the time.

“All of council didn’t know about the trip until… I think I got an email from counsel a week to ten days before they were going to be going on the trip, so I don’t know,” city councilwoman Lois Richardson said.

With Edmonds and Brown recused, the five remaining city council members passed several resolutions to investigate any potential legal or ethical wrongdoing related to the China trip. The four officials who traveled to China and City manager Darwin McClary will be asked to respond to a list of written questions seeking to establish a timeline of how the trip was funded, when travel plans to China were arranged, and when city officials may have been informed about the source of the funding.

“There is uncertainty, and I think that’s one reason that city council suggested we asked certain questions of the people [who went on the trip]," Barr said. 

City council scheduled a special meeting for an investigative hearing on Tuesday, Oct. 10. The five city officials will be asked to answer further questions. Though, before Tuesday night’s meeting adjourned, Edmonds informed city council member Beth Bashert apparently through text message that she had a scheduling conflict and would not be able to appear at the special meeting. Bashert said Edmonds, who had recused herself and left the room, learned about the planned special meeting on Facebook.

Barr’s office was also instructed by the council to seek proposals from outside law firms to investigate the same matter. He said the two investigations will likely overlap, and it’s “hard to say” whether simultaneous investigations by city council and an outside law firm could lead to future complications. 

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