Council Member Pushes for ‘Second Opinion’ On Sewer Construction and Flooding in Glencairn

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Screenshot from recorded video.

East Lansing Interim Director of Public Works Nicole McPherson answering questions about the flooding.

In a tense back and forth at last night’s meeting, members of East Lansing’s City Council pushed City Manager George Lahanas for more information and urgency in efforts to educate the public — and Council — about the flooding and sanitary sewer issues resulting from recent heavy rains

Council member Ron Bacon argued specifically for an additional, third-party investigation into what happened with the sewer system on Aug. 12, particularly related to infrastructure reconstruction along Northlawn Avenue in the Glencairn Neighborhood.

“My background is medical, I think I’d like a second opinion,” Bacon said.

Told the contractors for the work would be looking at what happened, Bacon made clear he is seeking a read from “someone who isn’t so closely tied to the project and the outcome and frankly their own work. That’s a little close for me.”

Screenshot from recorded video.

East Lansing Council member Ron Bacon at the Oct. 5, 2021, meeting.

This investigation query from Bacon, added to questions and comments from Council members Lisa Babcock and Shanna Draheim, came at Tuesday’s City Council meeting during the portion of the meeting designed for the City Manager to share updates with the Council.

The unexpected exchange began when Lahanas announced that on Nov. 16, at a work-session meeting, Council will receive a presentation from Interim Public Works Director Nicole McPherson. Lahanas said on Tuesday night that this presentation will cover the Aug. 12 rains and flooding, including what happened with the sanitary sewer system. 

The timing of that Nov. 16 Council discussion will put it after the election, after a new Council is sworn-in.

Additionally, Lahanas said, the City will host a webinar in the weeks following Nov. 16, where members of the public can come to hear a similar presentation from McPherson. Lahanas also said that he is expecting written reports about what happened specifically with the construction and flooding in Glencairn. 

“We’ll have an overview on how the sewers, in general, function,” Lahanas said. “Also, specifically looking at the City of East Lansing sewer system, talking about the combined sewer and some of the decision-points that were made. And then also talking about the upgrade process and the continual review of the sewers and the construction that happens throughout the City. We’ll also be discussing a review of the Aug. 12 rain event that we experienced in East Lansing. Obviously a heavy rain event.”

See full map here.

Close up of a map of flooding reports on Aug. 12, 2021. This map was produced by the City of East Lansing and obtained by ELi.

McPherson will also be doing two “pop-up sessions” in Glencairn to speak with residents directly about construction issues, Lahanas said. Those pop-ups will happen this Friday, Oct. 8, from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m., and next Tuesday, Oct. 12, from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. Both will be held at Robert Shaw Park.

Draheim asked where they will be, and Lahanas said likely in Robert Shaw Park, which flooded on Aug. 12.

Bacon asked Lahanas about the independence of the reviews already underway, and said he was curious about initiating a “parallel” investigation by uninvolved parties. 

The City’s Public Works Department already reviewed the matter, Lahanas answered. The reports for which he is currently waiting will come from the engineering firm the City hired to design the sanitary sewer and the contractors hired to actually install it. 

Bacon — appointed to Council and running for election to Council on Nov. 2 — followed up and said there hasn’t been a more charged topic of conversation in town than the flooding. He said he would like to do whatever possible to show there was no partiality or impropriety in the process of looking into what happened. 

“I think whatever we can do to show impartiality and fair subjectivity around this question, I think it’s critical. I wouldn’t put aside a more full, secondary look at this thing. That way, everyone’s hands are clean on the back end of it,” Bacon said.

Screenshot from recorded video.

Employing a less aggressive approach, Mayor Jessy Gregg asked Lahanas if it was actually possible to get a truly independent body to do such a review.

Lahans said no, since the City would likely have to hire an engineering firm to do such a review, and because the City would be paying for, it would not be truly independent. 

McPherson concurred with Lahanas that it wasn’t possible to get a truly independent review.

Babcock, at this point, asked: “Why November? I asked the City Manager about this in early September and why are we now getting to this in November?”

Lahanas answered, with evident tension: “Well, I can answer that question. It’s because we have a lot of construction going on and we have a very thin engineering department. Our director has been called up into the military, [and] Nicole McPherson, our interim director, has stepped up into the role. We have two engineering spots that are empty behind Director McPherson.”

Indeed, the City has lost key engineering personnel since DPW Director Scott House has been deployed for at least a year to the Pentagon, and those positions have gone unfilled.

Screenshot from recorded video.

Lahanas continued: “So, we are supervising construction and doing all the things that Director McPherson has to do. So, we have a pop-up this week that we’ll be doing. A pop-up next week. And then we have lots of materials that we have to gather for that [Nov. 16 meeting], including these written reports from the contractors and engineering firm that we will have at that point. So, I think that considering the workload and considering the staffing that we have, I think that that’s when Director McPherson said we could have that material ready, so, that’s when we believe you can have it.”

Draheim said she wished for more information sooner, but that at this point the priority needs to be getting information to residents as soon as possible, something that’s been slow to happen.

Since the rains first soaked mid-Michigan on Aug. 12, there has been little from the City in terms of explanation or proposed solutions. ELi reported on the areas hardest hit shortly after the storm, and later on followed up with the City about construction and flooding on Glencairn — McPherson told ELi then that the construction was not “understood” to be a contributing factor. Now it appears the construction there is under further scrutiny, especially after further flooding along Northlawn Avenue following more rain on Sept. 13.

On Sept. 20, McPherson did present briefly, on screen, a pair of maps to the Council of Neighborhood Presidents. ELi followed up to obtain the PDFs, and recently received the maps. One shows the locations of flood reports on Aug. 12 (see it at this ELi page), the other on Sept. 13 (see it at this ELi page).

Beside those maps, there’s been little official communication from the City beyond individual dialogues with concerned residents. 

And as ELi reported on Monday, the day before City Council’s meeting, in the case of residents along one eastside street, even that isn’t moving the needle.

Screenshot from recorded video.

East Lansing Council member Dana Watson at the Oct. 5, 2021, meeting.

At last night’s meeting, Dana Watson — who, like Bacon, was appointed to Council and is now running for election — asked McPherson whether flooded renters are being represented on the reporting maps. McPherson answered that typically such a report would come from a landlord, so there would be one triangle marking what might be an apartment complex with many affected residents. 

ELi continues to receive reports from residents struggling with water problems all over town. In Glencairn, a group of residents have been assembling a trove of information about the ongoing infrastructure reconstruction project, telling ELi that substantial problems with that project predate the monumental rains of Aug. 12, 2021.

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This article was updated at 11:55 a.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 6, 2021, to include more information about the pop-up events.

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