Council Goofed on Covid-Related Law – But Now They’ve Reinstated a $500 Party Fine

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Aaron Stephens at the July 29, 2020 meeting of City Council.

East Lansing’s City Council held a short and unexpected meeting today, January 28, starting at 4 p.m. for one purpose – to reinstate a law that makes violations of public health orders punishable by a $500 fine by the City.

City Council had passed Ordinance 1496 on October 13, 2020, instituting this punishment in response to large student parties that were happening in violation of Ingham County Health Department regulations. 

But that law expired on December 31, 2020, and Council forgot to renew it.

So, today, Council met and voted 5-0 to pass Ordinance 1497, which reinstates the local fine of $500 for violation of a county or state public health rule. This law will be “in effect until it is amended or repealed through an ordinance adopted by the City Council.”

Mayor Aaron Stephens said at the meeting that he didn’t want to cast blame for the lapse, and said the City would learn from its mistakes going forward.

Responding to one public comment, City Attorney Mike Homier did not explain how the lapse happened, but defended the Constitutionality of the law.

Since the start of the calendar year, Officers of the East Lansing Police Department have been writing citations for health code violations. One party is said to have had around a hundred people.

But because it turns out that the law wasn’t in effect from Jan. 1 through today, the violators cited by ELPD this year can’t be fined by the City.

Stephens told ELi yesterday that violations noted by ELPD during the lapse of East Lansing’s law “can still be prosecuted out of the Ingham County Prosecutors’ office and we have forwarded all of those citations since Jan. 1 to them. Whether the county decides to take action is up to them so we don’t have much control over it.”

Stephens said the City of East Lansing is also “forwarding all of the citations and violations to MSU for a violation of the student compact.” He said that “the issues will still be addressed through the university if [the violators] were MSU students.”

ELi has been trying to find out details of citations written for public health violations and running into roadblocks from ELPD in the process.

ELi’s Emily Joan Elliott, who has been our lead public health reporter, asked ELPD Deputy Chief Gonzalez for information about how many citations had been written, for which addresses, and any details about the violations that could be provided. She was told she had to file a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.

Following instructions from Gonzalez, on Jan. 20, Elliot filed a FOIA request asking for “any and all documents related to all citations issued for ordinance 1496, including citations and police reports for violations of ordinance 1496 and all police reports filed under class 5599.”

On Jan. 26, she received a response saying this information would take ELPD staff about 18 hours to assemble, and asking ELi to pay $568.48 for provision of the information under FOIA.

Gonzalez explained, “To retrieve individual addresses and the specific details that led to each citation will require looking at and compiling information from each ticket and police report.”

He did not explain, in his response, that the law had accidentally lapsed, and that this was the reason that the City had suddenly announced a special meeting of City Council.

ELi is not paying the FOIA charge because our editorial staff has determined this would not be an effective use of donated funds, given ELi’s limited reporting budget. We are therefore unable to report details on violations at this point.

Note: This article, published before the meeting, was updated at 5 pm on January 28, shortly after the vote.

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