ELi has already brought you two dedicated reports out of this week’s East Lansing City Council’s meeting.
Heather Brothers reported for us on the 3-1 vote to demand Attorney General Dana Nessel drop charges against a man shot by two ELPD officers or else move the case to Ingham County prosecutors. Following the advice of East Lansing’s Independent Police Oversight Commission, Council also wants the AG to turn over her investigation file on the police shooting. Find out more here, including why there were five members of council present but only four voting on this matter.
In less controversial matters, this week, Council voted unanimously to rename Abbot Park “Azaadiwag Park” with the goal of honoring cottonwood trees as well as indigenous peoples of the area. We brought you a special article on that.
So, what else happened at Council?
City Manager George Lahanas was away, so Tom Fehrenbach, Director of Planning and Deputy City Manager, took Lahanas’ place.
The city’s prosecution attorney Robert Easterly was expected to provide an update on prosecution and policies related to that, but that was put off to a date yet to be determined.
At public comment, two people came to raise concerns about the city’s plan to use part of the bike lane on Albert Avenue to create a drop-off and pick-up parking area for residents of Newman Lofts and others. The city consulted on the plan with the East Lansing Seniors Commission but not the Transportation Commission, which is known to be stocked with bicycle advocates.
Transportation Commissioner Nathan Werner told Council his commission wants to consider the matter, as they might come up with a better design, given their expertise. Representing the Tri-County Bicycle Association, Michael Unsworth objected to the removal of “a large portion of a functional bicycle lane in a part of the city that has heavy bike traffic,” forcing bicyclists into the car lane. He said while the goal is good, the design needs improvement and should involve the Transportation Commission.
Asked about where the project goes from here, East Lansing’s Director of Public Works Nicole McPherson told ELi on Thursday the plan will go to the Transportation Commission on Oct. 3. She said the goal is to find “creative solutions to accommodate the drop off request in a manner that is fair, safe, and equitable.”
About the city’s finances…
Although it’s not budget season at council, in his role as the council liaison to the East Lansing Public Library Board of Trustees, George Brookover told that body this week that he is “continually concerned about the city’s budget” and that “there are going to be issues for the next couple of years.” The city continues to struggle with finances – and also with low staffing, including in the police department.
Issues of conflicts of interest boiled to surface again this week at Council.
The debate continued this week over council member Councilmember Dana Watson’s desire to remove the Parks & Rec Advisory Commissioner seat from the committee tasked with considering which projects or organizations should get federal Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds in East Lansing.
Watson has said she thinks the Parks & Rec commissioner has a conflict of interest because the Parks Department often is a recipient of the funds. But this week, Brookover said that, by Watson’s logic, the transportation commissioner should be removed because most of the CDBG funds get used for sidewalk repairs.
After last week’s discussion on the matter, Brookover asked for the city attorney to weigh in on Watson’s question about a possible conflict of interest for Parks & Rec. Doing so in writing, the city attorney said he saw no legal conflict of interest from having Parks & Rec at the table.
The backdrop of this matter includes that Watson is the council liaison to this commission and she is also on the board of the Capital Area Housing Partnership (CAHP), which often receives funds from the East Lansing disbursement of CDBG funds.
Watson has repeatedly disclosed her CAHP board position and the fact she personally received substantial down payment assistance from CAHP before she was elected to council.
When Mark Meadows was on council, he went beyond disclosure, asking to be recused from matters concerning CAHP because he is also on that board. Watson did not respond to an emailed question from ELi asking her to explain why she has not similarly sought recusal to avoid an appearance of conflict of interest.
Watson strongly objected this week to any implication she was upset with Parks & Rec Advisory Commission Representative Pam Weil who has raised some questions about the funding of CAHP. Watson said she was dismayed about “this going off track to that it’s something personal or it’s about the person.”
Asked for his take on the matter, Parks & Rec Advisory Commission Chair Adam DeLay told ELi by email, “I think the reason why people speculated as to why Councilmember Watson was making this move was because it seemed to come out of nowhere and her argument about conflicts of interest confused myself and others. I asked her if there was perhaps some additional reason as to why she was taking this action and she told me no, and I take her at her word.”
In this week’s council discussion, Mayor Pro Tem Jessy Gregg said she had heard from people on various commissions who were upset with Watson’s attempts to remove Parks & Rec from the CDBG advisory committee.
“I think they feel their contributions are being disrespected,” Gregg said. “There’s a feeling that they’re being penalized essentially for doing what we’ve asked them to do, which is to volunteer their time, give of their expertise.”
In the end, the vote that happened was not on whether to remove Parks & Rec, but whether to add to the CDBG advisory committee representatives from the Environment Commission and the Planning Commission.
On that proposal, Brookover, Gregg and Lisa Babcock voted yes, passing the measure and adding representatives from those two commissions. Watson and Mayor Ron Bacon voted no.
In his remarks, Bacon said he didn’t think what the city attorney had to say on the matter got to the real point.
“I don’t think the legal framework [about conflict of interest] was the issue in the first place,” he said. “I think it was an issue of creating any appearance of impropriety or of preference.”
There’s still more coming from ELi about this week’s Council.
Questions of conflict of interest also permeated the discussion of a new policy aimed at allotting up to $6,000 in taxpayer dollars this year to pay for short-term street closures for business-hosted events. We’ll have a report on that issue for you coming soon. [Update: report is here.]
Meanwhile, ELi City Desk Editor Luke Day is continuing investigating and reporting on violence downtown – a topic of sharp public comment at this week’s council meeting – so stay tuned to ELi for more on that. In the meantime, the ELPD has issued an “update” on “efforts to keep the community safe.” Find that here.
Publisher’s note: ELi supporters have voluntarily put together a fund to encourage more community members to sign up for East Lansing Insider memberships to help sustain ELi and prevent another ELi shut-down. If you sign up for a $100 East Lansing Insider membership today, you’ll get the news faster and ELi will obtain a $50 match bonus! Please act today!