All the East Lansing News We Don’t Know Where to Put

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Graph from City of East Lansing; photo of Gregg by Dylan Lees.

Mayor Jessy Gregg told ELi why she thinks it makes sense to wait on further discussion of the pension funding deficit.

Sometimes things happen in East Lansing that make us as reporters say to each other, “We should tell ELi readers about that,” but we don’t have the bandwidth to compose a deep-researched report just about those items.

Here are the news items we think fall into that category right now.

But first, we want to remind you that the ASMSU-hosted East Lansing City Council debates are next week.

These debates, like the League of Women Voter candidate forums, are being informed by ELi readers’ answers to our election survey. Thank you if you participated in the survey!

The ASMSU debates will be on Monday, Oct. 11, from 7-9 p.m. in room 115 of the International Center on campus (427 N. Shaw Ln.). The candidates for the 2-year seat will take the floor first, followed by the candidates for the 4-year seats at about 7:50 p.m. Find ELi’s complete voter guide here.

East Lansing is definitely feeling the impact of the employment crisis.

Businesses all over town are struggling to stay open and responsive to customers as they lack adequate numbers of employees. Managers in the restaurant business tell us that, during the pandemic shutdown, many hospitality workers shifted to employment in the marijuana industry.

Gary Caldwell for ELi

Meanwhile, MSU reports that the university has several thousand fewer student workers than normal (pre-pandemic) on campus. No one is quite sure why so many fewer students have sought employment through MSU this year, but it’s definitely having an impact on services all over campus. At least one ELi reader wrote in to point out the limited dining hall options and hours and the resulting effects on students.

The Council appears no closer to hiring a new City Attorney.

By mid-August, City Council decided to look for a new City Attorney after failing to come to terms on a new contract with Foster Swift. But since then, there’s been no mention at City Council of the matter, and no scheduling of interviews of candidates or of a decision.

It’s increasingly looking like this City Council won’t hire a new attorney – they will just continue to pay Foster Swift $225 per hour, with no cap, for general counsel services. It remains to be seen if the Council seated post-election would move on from Foster Swift as the City Attorney.

It’s also looking like this City Council won’t conduct a performance review of the City Manager, to whom they granted a new four-year contract over a year ago.

A member of the Arts Commission resigned over an issue of diversity and representation.

Reading “a prepared statement” off her phone, Mayor Jessy Gregg said at City Council this week that a member of the East Lansing Arts Commission resigned in protest after the commission’s decision to award a white artist the $29,900 contract for painting a diversity-themed mural on the side of the East Lansing Public Library.

Gregg’s statement began, “We had a shakeup at our last Arts Commission meeting regarding one of our commissioner’s strong conviction that a white artist should not represent a Black subject. This resulted in the concerned commissioner’s resignation and caused a lot of soul-searching among the remaining commissioners, who were left wondering if they had made the right decision to move forward with this mural.”

Responding to a question from ELi, Gregg indicated the person who resigned is Ben Van Dyke. Reports from around town indicate this issue has created a lot of controversy. Council voted to approve the contract awarding this week. Read more about the mural here.

The City government is struggling to follow the Open Meetings Act and parliamentary procedures.

A year ago, ELi reported that Foster Swift held an invitation-only Zoom meeting to teach members of East Lansing’s City government about the Open Meetings Act. About 200 people were invited. The general public wasn’t allowed to see it and there was no recording made of it.

Still, City government and public bodies in East Lansing regularly struggle with following the Open Meetings Act and parliamentary procedures. A couple of recent examples of many available:

A joint meeting of the East Lansing and Meridian Township Transportation Commissions on Monday was not announced by East Lansing’s agenda as a joint meeting – irritating some citizens who say they would have attended if they had known it would be a rare joint meeting. The meeting itself turned into something of a free-for-all in terms of order, with members of the public commenting out of turn, the respective members of the Meridian Township Transportation Commission going unidentified for most of the meeting, and the meeting itself being called to order by City staff, not the chair of the East Lansing Transportation Commission, Scott McCormick.

The next night, at Council, the mayor needed to recuse herself from a vote to close a street because the event for which it is being closed is being co-hosted by the business she owns. Mayor Gregg simply announced she would recuse herself on this vote and sought “maybe just a nod from Council members” before declaring herself “out.”

According to the City Charter, the Council is supposed to vote on excusing a member from a vote. A majority vote is required for the excusal.

Dylan Lees for ELi

City Attorney Laura Genovich at the Aug. 10, 2021, meeting of City Council

Foster Swift’s attorney at the table, Laura Genovich, has not responded to a question from ELi about the legality of what happened. Lawyers from Foster Swift have only rarely corrected Council on improper actions in meetings. Genovich and the other attorneys who have represented the City usually remain silent through most of the meetings except when asking to discuss matters with Council in closed sessions, as happened again this week on the matter of the rental license transfers at Chesterfield Hills. 

A memo was released on that particular matter, and there was no reason given for why it couldn’t be discussed in public, as was previously done under City Attorney Tom Yeadon.

We’re still waiting for more information about the pensions.

On Aug. 10, then-Mayor Aaron Stephens asked City staff to find out how big the City’s required pension payments will be in ten years, seeking an estimate from MERS, the system that manages the City of East Lansing’s pensions. We reported at that time that East Lansing’s pension gap is bigger than ever, now at about $100 million.

Stephens was told the estimates would take about 45 days to get. The City’s communications department, answering a question from ELi, now says, “The ballpark estimate from MERS should be received in the coming weeks. Staff wanted to meet with MERS prior to making an official request to discuss and clarify the scenarios they would be requesting. The official request to MERS was made in early September.”

Gregg tells ELi she thinks it might make sense to wait until after the election to discuss what the City gets back: “On the pension stuff it might make more sense to wait until after the new council is sworn in since we could have a pretty new council depending on who is elected. I’ll check with Jill [Feldpausch, Finance Director] and see if she has anything ready to present.”

What’s going on with that $12 million in federal aid we were expecting?

We’ve not heard anything in months about the City of East Lansing’s plan for the American Rescue Plan funds, which we had been told would likely come to around $12 million in revenue. The City of Lansing and Meridian Township both have publicly posted details of what they would seek to use their funds for. But East Lansing? Crickets so far – publicly anyway.

Asked about this, Gregg tells ELi she’s looking for an update on this at next week’s City Council meeting (Oct. 12), and the City’s communication department says that should be coming: “Staff is planning to have their first discussion with City Council on ARPA at the Oct. 12 discussion-only meeting.” 

Update, 8:15 pm: Mayor Gregg objected on Facebook to this reporting. When asked for any factual corrections, she responded that her issue was with “the implication that we are planning on indefinitely retaining Foster and Swift [sic] at their monthly rate.” She added, “I feel conflicted about trying to get it done before the election though, since the incoming council should be part of that discussion.” She also added, “And Lisa and Ron have been working on some kind of performance review for Mr. Lahanas so I know that’s in the works. I haven’t been part of those conversations though. Dana and I took the contract negotiation and they’re working on criteria for the performance review.” ELi reported previously that Bacon and Babcock have been tasked with that work.

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