The East Lansing City Council approved the Settlement Agreement between the City of East Lansing and the Command Officers Association of Michigan (COAM), the police union that represents eleven sergeants and lieutenants in the East Lansing Police Department, in a 4-1 vote at the Oct. 19 meeting.
Earlier in the meeting, Council member Lisa Babcock asked Council to move the item from the consent agenda to the business agenda to allow for discussion before the vote, a motion Mayor Jessy Gregg opposed.
“Policing, of course, has been an issue during my duration on the Council. And often when we have questions about policing we’re told that the issue comes back to the contract,” Babcock said. “So, for that reason alone, I don’t think it’s right to have it on consent agenda because the public expects us to resolve those issues by addressing it through the contract. I think it’s worthy of a higher level of scrutiny by the Council and the public, given how those issues have played out.”
On the matter, Gregg had a different viewpoint: “Because that is a labor agreement, and that really is, I feel like, the purview of our HR department and the [City] manager that directly oversees our employees, I kind of feel like that dishonors the work that they’ve done.”
Council member Shanna Draheim offered similar words about the hard work City staff has put in during bargaining, and Mayor Pro Tem Dana Watson spoke from a union standpoint about the difficulties of bargaining. Both Draheim and Watson ultimately voted to move the item to the business agenda for discussion along with Babcock and Council member Ron Bacon, leaving Gregg the sole opposing vote on the issue of whether to engage in discussion before voting on contract approval.
The contract in question has been ratified by COAM and recommended for approval from the City’s bargaining team, which included Human Resources Director Shelli Neumann, ELPD Chief Kim Johnson, Deputy Police Chief Steve Gonzalez, and Finance Director Jill Feldpausch.
Bargaining began in May 2021, and the contract as approved will be in effect until June 30, 2023. The contract includes a 2% wage increase for FY22 and a 3% increase in FY23.
During discussion, Babcock articulated her case for postponement of approval and others responded.
Babcock pointed to some things she saw as lacking in the contract, including no explicit mention of barring officers from membership in known hate organizations or what occurs when officers fail to meet the set of standards outlined in the contract.
Babcock also expressed concern that if Council approved this contract, it could then set a precedent where Council felt it had to approve other police union contracts that Council might find unsatisfactory.
“We find ourselves chasing our tails,” Babcock said, referencing how often she felt Council was referred to police labor contracts in discussions about reforming policing in the City. And now, Babcock argued, Council was missing an opportunity to take a closer look at the contracts before approving them.
“We know, from real life experience, how much hinges on the contract and how much hinges on our ability to respond to, what I would like to call unthinkable incidents, but incidents that do happen. And when those incidents happen, we need to have a stronger document than this,” Babcock said.
“This is the time to do it. This is what we were elected to do. We were elected to stand up for the people of the City of East Lansing and, whether they come in for the day, whether they live here, or are driving through, we need to have a response, we need to have the right to respond, we need to tell folks that we will respond for them,” Babcock continued.
Gregg disagreed with Babcock’s assessment, saying, “I think it’s not a fair characterization to say that we’ve done nothing, because we have not had success in changing specific clauses within this contract.”
Gregg went on to say that the Council has focused on policing policy, like use of force, rather than at the contract level.
“I’m not willing to make a stand on something that I feel confident that we will lose, in a way that might endanger other aspects of our agreement,” Gregg told Council, referring to how a Council’s refusal to approval of the contract could lead to a drawn-out arbitration process in which the City would likely not get the provisions that Council sought.
“Our staff, who is working at the behest of this policy-making body, has negotiated in good faith with one of our labor unions and I think that this is a solid contract because of that.” Draheim said in response to the debate. “And to pull the rug out after a long period of contract negotiations, I think, would be very unfair to the employees themselves but also to the financial well-being of this community.”
Draheim said the time for discussion was before contract negotiation, but Babcock countered that Council had in fact discussed what it would like in contracts prior to negotiations. City Manager George Lahanas said the parameters set by Council were met, but Babcock did not agree.
Watson expressed her hope that the Oversight Commission will help Council with ideas of how to make changes to policing in the City. She reiterated her support for the bargaining team and their efforts, stating, “I’m just on board with the work that was put into this, and people being able to relax and move forward, even though we are where we are for Council.”
In his remarks, Bacon highlighted the national context that surrounds issues of policing, arguing that “bad actors” won’t necessarily follow the rules of the contract no matter how many are put in place. He acknowledged there is still a lot of work to be done in East Lansing on this “complicated issue” and pointed out that law enforcement officers are under the heightened scrutiny of the public in 2021.
“The nation’s watching,” Bacon said. “The nation’s fatigued.”
The contract was approved in a 4-1 vote by Council, with Babcock the sole dissenting vote.
Council also spoke to the City Attorney about court data and possible bias in prosecutions.
On Tuesday, Council invited Assistant City Attorney Robert Easterly to discuss how data is captured within the court system in East Lansing. Since his law firm of Foster Swift obtained the City Attorney contract a year ago, Easterly has been handling prosecutions for the City for cases not handled by the county prosecutors.
According to Gregg, Easterly was invited to offer “insight” into how Council could begin to collect and analyze 54B Court data in the City, from who is charged to how individuals are sentenced.
Council learned from Easterly that many demographics are not tracked by the 54B Court system, including race and gender. According to Easterly, there is the potential for some of this data to be “mined” from court documents retroactively, but the City should consider the labor and costs that would go into a project of that kind.
Watson, who sent Easterly questions ahead of the Council meeting and drove much of the discussion about data collection, was perplexed that the court system doesn’t have better mechanisms in place for data tracking and capture.
“I’m here pushing this today, and we’ve been pushing for it for years, trying to be able to more easily put the pieces together. You can’t see your problems if you don’t pull the data,” Watson said.
Watson spoke with disbelief about the lack of data, especially when it comes to tracking interactions with people of color in East Lansing and the importance of having statistical evidence to back up anecdotal experiences from residents.
“We finally had the evidence so we can finally move forward, but it’s hard to move forward if we’re not looking at the data and if were not realizing the flaws in the way we think, the way we charge.”
Easterly told Watson that he agreed and appreciated her comments. After more discussion with Council and City Manager George Lahanas, the matter will be looked into further at future Council meetings.
Tuesday’s meeting marked the last scheduled City Council meeting before the Nov. 2 Council elections, during which voters will elect three people to the five-member Council. ELi recently reported that polling data show the race for the four-year seat is tight in terms of the second seat. Find ELi’s Voter Guide here.
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