Flint, MI — Multiple city councilmembers are concerned after learning the firm looking to purchase and redevelop the remainder of Flint’s largest brownfield site has contributed thousands of dollars to local organizations and political campaigns — including some associated with sitting councilmembers.

During public speaking at Flint City Council’s committee meetings on Aug. 9, 2023, Flint resident Arthur Woodson shared that Council Vice President Ladel Lewis and Councilman Quincy Murphy received contributions from Ashley Capital to organizations they’re involved with.

“Y’all need to recuse y’all selves from any vote for Ashley Capital,” Woodson said.

It was later learned that Councilman Eric Mays’ campaign had also received a contribution from the development firm in 2022.

The Contributions

Scans of checks provided to Flint Beat show that Richard A. Morton, the co-founder of Ashley Capital, donated $11,000 to Genesee County Habitat for Humanity on June 12, 2023 for the purpose of a “lawnmower donation.”

Councilman Murphy acknowledged his association with Habitat during the committee meetings on Aug. 9 and later confirmed to Flint Beat he’s been working on grant-funded projects with Habitat for Humanity as the lead fiduciary for several years.

The checks also show the Ashley Capital Political Action Committee (PAC) donated $1,500 on Oct. 24, 2022, to the Sarvis Park Neighborhood Association, of which Lewis is president according to Michigan Licensing and Regulatory Affairs filings. Lewis also told Flint Beat that she founded the organization.

Additionally, on May 9, 2022, the same PAC cut checks for $1,050 to the Committee to Elect Eric Mays; $2,100 to the Committee to Elect Sheldon A. Neeley; and $2,500 to Moving Flint Forward.

Ashley Capital announced its deal to purchase Flint’s former Buick City site in May of 2022, though reports of the still-pending deal began in late-April of that year.

In presentations since the announcement, the firm has promised a roughly $300 million investment in the site’s development and the potential for hundreds of jobs to come to Flint via future tenants.

The developer has received millions of dollars from Flint, Genesee County, the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation and the state of Michigan in support of finalizing the purchase, as former contamination, utilities and foundation slabs on the site proved a large burden to redevelopment.

“We’ve done lots of brownfield redevelopment, and we’ve never come to a city, a state, a county for grant money. This is the first time we’ve ever needed to do this,” Susan Harvey, Ashley Capital’s Senior Vice President, told Flint City Council in October 2022, when the body was considering two multi-million dollar funding resolutions for the site.

Council unanimously voted in favor of the resolutions on Oct. 24, 2022.

Ashley Capital has since closed on part of the site and broke ground on the first of a potential 10-building development. It now awaits approval of a proposed tax capture plan to finalize funding for the rest of the site’s development.

Council voted on Monday, July 31, 2023 to move forward with a public hearing on that plan on Aug. 14.

Lewis and Murphy both voted yes to the hearing. Mays was not present for the vote as he had been suspended from meetings earlier in the evening.

The Discussion

During the council’s Governmental Operations Committee meeting on Aug. 9, Mays made a motion to add a discussion item to the agenda about Ashley Capital’s “contributions and gifts.”

Councilmembers Mays, Murphy, Jerri Winfrey-Carter, Tonya Burns, Candice Mushatt and Dennis Pfeiffer voted for the discussion. Vice President Lewis and Councilwomen Judy Priestley and Eva Worthing voted against it.

“This should have been disclosed,” Burns said of the contributions. “I’m transparent, I don’t do business that way … Tonya Burns is not taking anything.”

Flint City Council members Jerri Winfrey-Carter (left) and Tonya Burns (right) listen to public comments during a meeting in the Dome Auditorium in Flint City Hall on Monday, July 31, 2023. (Michael Indriolo | Flint Beat)

Burns referenced Flint’s city charter, which states: “A public servant shall not accept gifts, gratuities, honoraria, or other things of value from any person or company doing business or seeking to do business with the City of Flint.”

During the ensuing talks, Murphy said Ashley Capital had approached him and asked how they could help Flint residents.

“A lot of the third ward is blight. I have the highest concentrated area when it deals with blight. So they said, ‘What is your concern, Quincy?’ I said, ‘Blight is my concern,'” he said.

Murphy added that he is constantly hearing from residents about the grass not being cut in public areas.

“What I knew we needed in the third ward was lawnmowers to cut grass because all I’m getting since I’ve been city councilman is complaints, complaints, complaints about grass,” he told his colleagues.

Flint City Council member Quincy Murphy listens during a Flint City Council meeting at Flint City Hall on Monday, March 13, 2023. (Michael Indriolo | Flint Beat)

During the same discussion, Lewis said that the Sarvis Park Neighborhood Association is a nonprofit, and therefore belongs to the community.

“They didn’t invest in Ladel Lewis, they invested in Sarvis Park,” she told fellow councilmembers.

The second ward councilwoman added that she doesn’t receive any money from the association, rather that a donation to the association is an investment in Flint.

“For those that invest in Sarvis Park, you are investing in the City of Flint, in the north side of Flint,” Lewis said. “And do you know how much you have to pay when you come [to events at Sarvis Park]? Absolutely nothing because of investors like Ashley Capital.”

For his part, Mays said he thinks he did the right thing by disclosing his relationship with Ashley Capital when he was council president. He also said that Lewis and Murphy were “telling” on themselves by talking about the funds more.

“Mr. Murphy, you say you glad we brought it up, the point is you should have brought it up,” Mays said.

Other councilmembers’ comments focused on the public concern over recusals, as Murphy, Lewis and Mays have all voted on one or more resolutions relating to Ashley Capital since winning office in November 2021.

Councilwoman Worthing said the only person who should have recused themselves from votes regarding Ashley Capital is the person who received money for their political campaign.

Councilman Pfeiffer disagreed, saying that all three members should have abstained from voting, regardless of whether or not the donations were disclosed.

“I’m not saying that they [the donations] were illegal, but they are questionable and it brings in a level of uncertainty of why you would possibly support something,” he said.

Later in the meeting, before the discussion item on the Ashley Capital contributions was about to occur, Priestley made a motion to adjourn, which was voted down.

Priestley, Lewis and Worthing then left the meeting.

When the remaining councilmembers got to the discussion item, Mays and Pfeiffer requested that the city attorney’s office provide a legal opinion on the situation.

They asked for that opinion by the city council meeting on Aug. 14 — the same day the body will hold a public hearing on Ashley Capital’s brownfield redevelopment plan.

Ashley Capital’s Response

In an interview after the meeting, Susan Harvey, Ashley Capital’s senior vice president, said that the contributions brought up at council are in line with the firm’s development work in the community.

“We have a long history of working in and helping out communities that we don’t have any properties in. So since we’ve been in Flint, we have made a donation to Habitat for Humanity, also to the park, we also have made donations and worked a lot with the Boys and Girls Club in Flint . . . and I think that’s either in the fourth or the fifth ward,” she said.

She also said that the company doesn’t give donations to try to sway votes.

“We don’t do the charitable giving to curry favor or try to influence the votes, and I’d like to point out that if we did, we would have been notifying the council people in these other wards to let them know we had done these things and somehow tried to take credit for them, but … they didn’t ask us to get involved in their wards, we just did it,” she said.

Harvey said that at the end of the day, the conversations about the contributions are a distraction.

“We’re hopeful that we can continue and develop in Flint. I think that this is an unfortunate distraction from what we’re really trying to do,” she said. “I think it’s really unfortunate and unfair for these allegations to be made toward these council people.”

Sophia is Flint Beat's City Hall reporter. She joins the team after previously reporting for the Livingston Daily and the Lansing State Journal, along with some freelance work with The New York Times....