Council Recap: City Attorney Says Tuesday’s Meeting is Fine

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Clockwise from top left: Council members Dana Watson, Aaron Stephens, Jessy Gregg, Lisa Babcock, Ron Bacon, and City Attorney Mike Homier

At the beginning of Tuesday’s regularly scheduled City Council meeting, Mayor Aaron Stephens asked City Attorney Mike Homier to advise the Council on the legality of the meeting itself.

The State Supreme Court issued an opinion on Monday that negated Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s Covid-19-related executive orders as they were issued after April 30, 2020. Those orders had included allowing for virtual meetings of public bodies, under a temporary change from the Michigan Open Meetings Act. 

Homier explained that State Senate Bill 1108, expected to take effect as law soon, will create a provision allowing for virtual meetings of public bodies to be held through the end of the year. He also said the law will also retroactively authorize virtual meetings since April 30, 2020. 

“So at this time I don’t think there’s any reason for the City Council to change the manner in which it is holding meetings,” Homier said.

On Tuesday, the State House passed its version of the bill, and the Senate concurred. It now heads to the Governor for an expected signature of approval.

Stephens added that he had spoken with the Governor’s office on Tuesday, and they anticipated the bill to be signed soon.

“What does that mean for today’s meeting?” Stephens then asked Homier.

Homier explained that in his interpretation, the Open Meetings Act “isn’t necessarily drafted in such a narrow manner” as to not allow a virtual meeting anyway. It isn’t a view shared by everyone, he admitted, as others read it to require a quorum of a public body convening in a physical place.

“It defines a meeting in which a quorum of the board is convened,” Homier said. “But whether that means a physical place or a place such as Zoom or on the internet, for the purposes of conducting a public meeting, remains unclear, at least as I read the Open Meetings Act.” 

He added that some might argue the Council must meet physically in person but can allow all other participants to take part virtually. Homier said he doesn’t see the point in that, especially when, in his view, Zoom presents all the Council members and makes them available to be seen and heard by the public while allowing the public to take part.

Homier also noted, as others have, that public participation has been up in meetings since they’ve been virtual and that people shouldn’t be made to choose between their safety and participating in a public meeting.

“On balance, and I think the legislature has recognized this as well, public participation is enhanced by these meetings, these meetings certainly show, and evidence, a quorum of the board, they’re recorded, they’re a two-way transmission so the public can participate, so I would recommend that you move forward as you have been,” Homier said.

Stephens asked a final question about what happens if an item during Tuesday’s meeting was passed and then challenged in the future. Homier said if that happens, Council can simply revote on the item.

Violating a public health order in East Lansing is now a $500 civil infraction

Council passed a Resolution 2020-7 which adopted Emergency Ordinance 1496. The ordinance makes it a civil infraction for violating State of Michigan or Ingham County public health orders through the end of the year. Those infractions will be punished with a $500 fine.

Read more on this from last night from ELi’s Emily Joan Elliott.

DDA Evergreen property discussed

In a brief presentation, Tom Fehrenbach, director of the City’s Department of Planning, Building & Development, outlined the history of the site and various plans proposed before highlighting the current status of a proposal from River Caddis called The CITADEL. 

Then, Council members discussed the proposal and asked more about the site and potential uses.

A rendering of The CITADEL from the original proposal for the DDA’s properties. This is looking north across Albert Ave., with Evergreen Ave. to the left and the alley to the right.

Council member Lisa Babcock went on the record saying she was generally opposed to the use of Tax Increment Financing (TIF) for the project unless there was a clear public interest. She also remarked that she wasn’t sure about the proposed office space in the project, noting that many professions are currently working away from shared office space and not planning to return soon due to Covid-19.

Mayor Pro Tem Jessy Gregg reminded Council that there are plenty of professions where people are going to be needing office space. Her greater concern was for parking and particularly her desire to have stacked, structured parking. 

“This City has such a broken relationship with parking,” Gregg said. “At every opportunity I want to give my personal opinion that surface parking is environmentally detrimental and if we can stack cars, we should.”

She also expressed concern about the use of TIF. She ando ther council members had more to say, so be on the lookout for an upcoming report tomorrow morning from our own Alice Dreger.

Strategic Priorities also discussed

While the conversation was generally brief, Council did talk about the City’s strategic priorities

Gregg noted to City Manager George Lahanas that she hoped for some consideration of tech infrastructure, which, especially in light of learning and working from home, could be included as part of the vibrant economy priority.

Earlier in the meeting, during public comment, East Lansing resident Anne Hill called and pointed out  six broad priorities with many sub-priorities means almost everything is a “priority,” in which case then nothing really is. She also asked about what happens when one of the priorities, like a vibrant economy achieved through developments, comes into conflict with environmental sustainability, another priority, through the decimation of natural spaces.

Lahanas responded to her comment by pointing out that some environmentally friendly policies also save money, but he did not address specifically how the City works its way through priorities that are in conflict. 

Now the priorities will come forward on an upcoming agenda for an approval from Council. The strategic priorities cover a five-year period.

Foster Swift’s conflict waiver is approved

After Babcock moved this item from the consent agenda to the discussion agenda, she merely asked Homier to briefly explain the purpose of the waiver.

Michael D. Homier (of Foster Swift Collins & Smith PC), the new East Lansing City Attorney.

In short, because the City is transacting a land sale deal with Michigan State Federal Credit Union for their downtown offices and Foster Swift has represented MSUFCU in other areas, they submitted a conflict waiver to both the City and MSUFCU in order to represent the City in the matter. 

Each client must okay the idea of the firm doing work for both parties. The attached waiver already noted Foster Swift had gotten a waiver approved from MSUFCU. 

Council voted unanimously to approve the waiver.

Appointments to the University Student Commission

Jeremy Frazee, Georgia Frost, Matt Apostle and Jonathan Shaheen were all approved unanimously by council for terms that run until Sept. 31, 2021.

The University Student Commission is a public body of the City of East Lansing composed of MSU students. It’s designed to increase communication and cooperation between the MSU student population and the City.

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