Going into closed session on Tuesday night, Nov. 1, for an unprecedented fourth meeting in a row to discuss City Manager George Lahanas’ job performance, members of East Lansing’s City Council have still said nothing publicly about their assessment.
At this week’s meeting, Council members also said nothing following their closed-session discussions of police and fire union contracts, coming back to open session to approve those contracts with no public discussion.
But in Council’s open session, plenty of tension was evident over two issues: policing downtown as violent public incidents continue and the city’s use of federal funds from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
Council and City Manager Lahanas defend policing in East Lansing
Calling himself “an activist for safe living in downtown East Lansing,” City Center condo resident Liam Carroll came to public comment again to decry violence and what he sees as the city’s government hampering the police. He referred to a shooting that occurred at approximately 2:30 a.m. Sunday, Oct. 30 in the Grove Street parking ramp, an incident that, according to WLNS, sent one person to the hospital. ELPD tells ELi no further information is available at this time.
Mocking the Independent Police Oversight Commission as “the overstep commission,” Carroll said “the bad guys” are “outsmarting the police.”
Referring to Councilmember Dana Watson’s prior remarks that she had conversations with Mayor Ron Bacon “to get this figured out,” Carroll said, “Maybe you could invite the criminals to the meeting. Even if they don’t help you figure it out, at least they’ll be too tied up in meetings to be out shooting people.”
“Mayor Bacon,” Carroll went on, “you also stated what we won’t do is overreact and create some type of hypervigilance towards any individual groups. That, in my opinion, is the exact opposite of what we should do.”
Carroll called for “hypervigilance against any and all criminals, lawbreakers, and violent actors” and objected to “crippling good officers” with policies he said stop police from doing their jobs.
Councilmember George Brookover took issue with Carroll’s implication that “law enforcement has just walked away” from Sunday morning’s shooting. “I just respectfully suggest that that’s absolutely not the case,” Brookover said, “nor do I think this council would ever allow that to happen.”
Mayor Pro Tem Jessy Gregg said she had done a five-hour ride-along with police just before Sunday’s “catastrophic violence” at the parking ramp.
“We are a council that is committed to equitable policing, which does not mean lack of policing,” Gregg said. “And I think that that’s [a] subtlety that is not really respected by the outside community maybe, and that we have a very bright lens on us because we have decided to move forward with police reforms.”
“I do think that it is possible to police a community safely and equitably,” Gregg continued, “but I also believe that we have a commitment to our officers to understand what they face when they go out into our community. And so I appreciate the many times that the East Lansing Police Department has graciously hosted me as I try to learn more about what they face on a nightly basis.”
Mayor Bacon spoke for several minutes on the matter, calling Carroll’s comments “Monday-morning quarterbacking” and saying “this council and city supports law enforcement.”
He said the problems we are seeing now are the result of problems that have gone unaddressed for decades, including through failure to address civil rights.
“There’s dangerous actors in every form. They’re not just Black kids with guns,” Bacon said. “I’m seeing dangerous actors everywhere and I think it’s time people kind of accept a lot of stuff that was accepted for a very long time, that could have been dealt with in its infancy, is now full grown.”
He added, “I will not have it be articulated that either that law enforcement is somehow being in absentia or not doing what they’re supposed to do or that Council or the city is somehow empathetic to criminal activity.”
“We will stem the tide,” Bacon said. “We will win.”
City Manager George Lahanas sought to assure the public he is walking the downtown with the police and the city is working on “eliminating gun violence to the greatest extent possible,” deploying security cameras and better lighting and adding Michigan State University police officers to downtown patrols.
“I’m not going to talk about the numbers” of officers working the downtown, Lahanas said, “but it is a very significant number.”
Lahanas commended ELPD officers for “bravely serving the residents of this community keeping people safe….They’re doing the jobs they’re supposed to be doing. And like the mayor said, I believe we will be getting ahead of this. We’re becoming a place where people are coming into the downtown. It’s become a very popular destination, and I think with our efforts and diligence we will get ahead of this.”
Council votes 4-1 to use HUD funds for downtown lighting.
“I feel dismissed,” Watson told her colleagues and city staff as she cast the lone vote Tuesday night in opposition to a proposal to use HUD funds for new lighting downtown. A portion of the funds were originally designated for helping with low-income housing needs.
City staff had come to council on Oct. 11 asking that $120,000 in unused HUD Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds be redirected before the funds expire and must be returned. About $60,000 of the $120,000 had previously been targeted for helping people in the low-to-moderate income range obtain grants for down payment assistance to buy houses, with the rest in “unprogrammed” funds.
The city’s Community and Economic Development Specialist Matt Apostle had originally suggested using $40,000 on design of the proposed farmers’ market pavilion and $80,000 on lighting downtown for public spaces. But after learning from HUD that the funds could not be used for the pavilion project because that proposed use didn’t follow federal requirements, he recommended using the full $120,000 for lighting.
Originally, the lighting proposal had involved the idea of “placemaking” – creating new attractive lighting displays that would be aesthetically pleasing while adding lumens. But following more violence downtown and criticism of using low-income funds for designer lighting, staff shifted the rhetoric to emphasize adding lighting as a safety measure.
In response to Apostle’s recommendation, Gregg said she liked the idea of using these funds to create a safer space for students, particularly since East Lansing is eligible for the fund because students’ have relatively low average incomes make the city eligible for CDBG funds in the first place.
Gregg said this plan would “give honor” to students. Jack Behan, a representative from ASMSU, the undergraduate student government of MSU, came forward during the public hearing to support a safety lighting plan and said students especially support string-style lighting in alleyways.
Brookover was also on board with using the funds for lighting, but insisted staff develop a cost-efficient plan that would focus on safety and not undermine other types of existing or planned safety infrastructure, like video cameras. He said he wanted to see MSU’s Criminal Justice program tapped for potentially cost-free ideas about using lighting to deter crime.
Bacon indicated agreement with Brookover that the approach should be “not aesthetic but tactical.” Lahanas responded that staff would seek help from contractors that focus on “security first and aesthetics second.”
Brookover also insisted that if the alley behind the Marriott Hotel is going to benefit from new lighting, the city split the cost with the owners of that hotel, as that alley is jointly the responsibility of the city and hotel property owners.
But Watson saw the redirection of funds from low-income housing to lighting downtown as deeply problematic.
“This is not about me not being in favor of more lighting,” Watson said.
Disclosing again that she was able to buy a house on Hagadorn Road because of East Lansing’s down payment assistance program, Watson said, “Until all people can afford to live here that work here, until there’s reparations, until there’s universal healthcare, universal daycare, I am not in support of moving these dollars.”
At the Oct. 11 Council meeting, Watson asked Apostle how many families had benefited from the down payment assistance program from 2000 through 2020, how HUD refers to homeowners’ assistance programs, and “who increases their down payment assistance program across the nation.” Apostle said he would bring her the answers.
But Apostle had no answers at Tuesday night’s meeting, making clear he did not even know what Watson had asked, saying she needed to “refresh his memory.”
“If I needed to write [the questions] down, I would have,” Watson said, indicating the failure to address questions contributed to her conclusion that she was being “dismissed.”
Before the vote, two residents of the Bailey neighborhood – Orella McHarris of Beech Street and Marie Lauer of Butterfield Drive – came forward to urge Council to use the funds on sidewalk repairs, saying the situation there has become dangerous.
Councilmember Lisa Babcock supported that idea, but hearing from city staff that the funds could not be expended on time for sidewalks, she voted in favor of the lighting plan.
The motion made by Brookover and passed on the 4-1 vote approved the plan to use the $120,000 for lighting, but also included a requirement that staff advise Council of how they’re carrying out the now-safety-focused plan.
What else happened at the meeting?
At public comment, Nichole Biber called on the city to “leave the leaves” rather than collecting leaves using the elaborate, carbon emission heavy approach East Lansing deploys.
Biber asked the city to respect “the ancient cycle of soil creation and replenishment,” to support the natural cycle of decay and renewal and to support native flora and fauna. She said she wants to see a move away from “an uninterrogated norm of ‘tidy’ aesthetics” to instead have “a goal of species recovery as a proactive commitment to climate action.”
Council did not respond to Biber’s ideas except when Babcock apologized to Biber before thanking a father-daughter team dressed as ninjas who recently helped blow her yard’s leaves to the curb.
Council also voted unanimously to consider a change to the requirements of who can serve on the East Lansing Historic District Commission, removing the requirement that at least a simple majority of members live in historic districts, as an attempt “to broaden the potential pool of appointees.” The matter will come to a vote at a later meeting.Using the consent agenda, Council made appointments to various boards; approved an update to the Age Friendly Community Action Plan to support diversity, equity and inclusion; voted to give discounted parking to tenants at the downtown Technology Innovation center; moved forward plans to review proposed changes to Valley Court Park; and set a public hearing for Dec. 6 to consider the request to sell recreational marijuana at High Society near Costco.