East Lansing’s City Council was back to full strength this week with the return of council member George Brookover whose reappearance following long covid-related pneumonia was greeted with applause. And although it was a “discussion only” meeting, a lot happened.
The main event was a presentation by Department of Public Works staff and an engineer from Tetra Tech on the flooding problems in the Glencairn neighborhood and beyond. For more on that, see the special separate report from ELi’s City Desk Editor Luke Day.
Also on Tuesday, Julie Pingston, president of the Greater Lansing Convention & Visitors Bureau, made a special presentation focusing on the local economic growth as it relates to visitors to the region.
East Lansing contributes significantly to that segment of the area’s economy, Pingston told council, by attracting people to Michigan State University, to regional sporting events that take place here and to national events like the Odyssey of the Mind World Finals.
Mayor Ron Bacon declared in response to Pingston’s presentation that he “really believes this region, I know, should be and will be someday once, even after I’m mayor, the hub for travel sports in the entire region if not [the] country And I know that’s something that would boost tourism and travel and, you know, that’s my mission – to accomplish that at some point and really aggravate Indianapolis and other areas by what we do here in travel sports.”
On the issue of the use of federal Community Block Development Grant funding, disagreement spilled over from last week on the question of whether a Parks & Recreation commissioner should be allowed a seat at the table of the CBDG advisory group.
Council members Jessy Gregg and Lisa Babcock argued for keeping Parks & Rec on and adding volunteer representatives from the Commission on the Environment and the Planning Commission. But Dana Watson objected to a volunteer Parks & Rec commissioner participating as a designee because the Department of Parks, Recreation & Arts receives funding from the grants.
“I think it looks funky to people,” said Watson, suggesting again a conflict of interest exists.
Bacon generally agreed with Watson’s concern, saying that any appearance of impropriety or “self-dealing” should be prohibited.
Brookover effectively closed the conversation by saying it was time for the city attorney to weigh in on these ongoing questions about potential conflicts of interest.
“Look,” Brookover said, “I think there’s fairly specific guidelines in Michigan statutorily in terms of what constitutes a conflict of interest. And so I would ask the mayor to request from the city attorney an opinion about what constitutes a conflict of interest under state law and I think our charter…before we start, you know, labeling people and conflicts of interest.
“I understand what Dana’s saying, I get it,” Brookover said. “But I happen to think that everybody that goes to this commission is somehow lobbying for money at some level.”
Bacon and Babcock agreed that the city attorney needs to weigh in.
In another special presentation, Karla Forrest Hewitt, East Lansing’s community events assistant, asked council to consider changes to the structure of the Crystal Awards, city council’s annual recognition of volunteer public service to East Lansing.
Forrest Hewitt recommended getting rid of the prohibition on someone receiving the award more than once – changing that limit to not more than once every 10ten years. She also asked to make explicit that self-nominations will not be considered and recommended getting rid of the residency requirement for awardees. Finally, she sought support for creating new awards for “Equity, Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging” and “Young Leader.”
In explaining why changes are sought, Forrest Hewitt raised the concern that sometimes there is no good candidate for a Crystal Award in a given year. On that point, Bacon and Brookover said that if there’s no one clearly deserving of the award in a given year, the ceremony should simply be skipped that year.
Watson and Gregg liked the idea of a young person’s award. But Brookover, describing himself jokingly as “an ogre,” said the school district has plenty of such awards.
As the night was getting late by this point, with the meeting running well over two hours, staff was urged to move fast through the last two items, which they did.
On the matter of adding a new drop-off/pick-up lane near Newman Lofts on Albert Avenue, Council tacitly OK’d the written staff recommendation, which will mean cars using the bike lane for short stops. The changes are expected to cost about $18,000 and be approved on next week’s consent agenda without discussion. The matter has been approved, according to staff, by the city’s Seniors Commission and the Age-Friendly Community Committee.
With regard to the agenda item on electric vehicles (EVs), staff told council that East Lansing has received regional praise for its ordinance requiring developers in certain circumstances to add EV charging spaces. Gregg gave a shout-out to former council member Erik Altmann for championing that law. Council essentially OK’d staff’s plan to participate in a program aimed at receiving more technical assistance with adding EV support locally.
During public comment, several citizens came forward to support Nichole Biber’s idea to rename Abbot Park with an Anishinaabe name, and two callers urged the City to take action with regard to ongoing problems of late-night violence downtown.