East Lansing City Council Meets Under New Rules to Extend State of Emergency

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Above: The front doors of Hannah Community Center this morning. (photo by Alice Dreger)

Although the building is formally closed for the coronavirus emergency, the front door to the Hannah Community Center was left open this morning for a short period. This allowed people to come into the building to attend the special East Lansing City Council meeting without touching the door handles.

Only a smattering of people showed up to the 10 a.m. meeting in the Hannah banquet room — two Council members, the City Attorney, a few members of staff, the people charged with audio-recording the meeting, and a few reporters. Everyone present in person tried to stay at least six feet apart, but not everyone did all the time.

The rest of Council and the City Manager attended by phone, an Open Meetings Act practice now allowed under a special order from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

The purpose of meeting was to vote on an extension of the State of Emergency. Beier made the motion:

“I move to approve the continuation of the local State of Emergency to April 6, 2020, and any such any other extensions as determined appropriate by the Mayor to April 30, 2020.”

The motion passed unanimously. In effect, it extends the State of Emergency declared on March 13 by only one day — from April 5 to April 6. But it also allows the Mayor to enact additional extensions through April 30.

According to a press release issued by the City shortly after the meeting, “Per state law, a declaration of a local state of emergency [by the mayor] may not extend past seven days unless approved by the governing body of the municipality.”

This means that when Beier declared the emergency on March 13 through April 5, she did so in contradiction to state law. We have a question in to the City Manager’s office about why that happened.

Above: Today’s City Council meeting at the Hannah Center banquet room. Jackson Mills of the City Clerk’s office (standing) is shown reading the roll. To his right (seated) are City Attorney Tom Yeadon and Council members Lisa Babcock and Jessy Gregg.

Attending by telephone, Beier ran the meeting via conferencing and speaker system. She asked all to state their names every time they were beginning to speak so that the Clerk’s office would be able to correctly attribute remarks and actions. She also asked for a roll call vote on every action.

Beier asked Council to adopt a special rule for the meeting, limiting live verbal public comment to two minutes per person, to keep potential public exposure to the coronavirus to a minimum. This passed unanimously, but as it turns out the rule was not needed because no one made a public comment.

There was one emailed-in set of questions read into the record by Beier from ELi, about whether City government meetings were likely to continue happening during the emergency.

Responding to the questions, Beier said, “I think that unless there is an urgent need for a meeting, City Council will not be meeting until the emergency is lifted. Unless we get into budget season and [get into] things that have to be done by law, we will not be trying to meet electronically.”

Council member Jessy Gregg, who attended in person at the Hannah Center meeting space, said the challenges of setting up and running this meeting showed the difficulty of running government meetings electronically. (The discussion was made awkward by the conferencing system.)

Beier did say that essential business will still be taken care of as necessary — so, there is a chance, for example, that the Council or Zoning Board of Appeals will meet. But, she said, meetings would be minimized.

“If this goes on a long time,” Beier said, referring to the State of Emergency, more meetings will have to happen. She said that staff is working on ways to make that happen.

Mayor Pro Tem Aaron Stephens, who was attending by phone, reminded the public that they can reach Council by email at council@cityofeastlansing.com.

During Council member comments, various Council members remarked on the importance of everyone helping each other and of supporting “downtown merchants.” Gregg later amended that to note that all businesses in the region need support.

Lisa Babcock, who attended in person, said that now is a great time to buy gift certificates for use later in the year. She also praised those who have stepped up to help get meals to children who normally rely on schools for meals and she asked people to remember East Lansing’s “large older population” and to help them out as possible.

Council member Mark Meadows noted that some people had questions about things like “will the trash still be picked up?” He noted that the City is carrying out essential services, including trash pickup. City Manager George Lahanas, who attended by phone, noted that trash and emergency services are still operational. Beier thanked the City Manager and staff for making sure departments could keep running with social distancing measures in place.

Stephens said that some people are reporting being charged $100 to be screened for possibly getting a COVID-19 test at local urgent care facilities, and he asked whether the City could work with Ingham County Department of Health to see if there is a way to help with that.

Meadows responded that legislation passed yesterday at the federal level means all coronavirus testing will be free. But Stephens clarified that it isn’t clear whether the screening required to obtain the test is also free. He is concerned that the cost might be prohibitive for some people, making it impossible for them to know their disease or carrier status.

In her own “Council member comments,” Beier said, “I think everyone in this country is starting to take this as seriously as it needs to be taken. If you live in East Lansing, stay in your house if you can.”

She said it was okay to go out to get food, including take-out food (see resource for that here), and for personal outdoor exercise. But, she said, do not congregate in groups.

“That’s what the best advice is for flattening out this curve,” said Beier. (Read more about why we need to “flatten the curve” in this most-shared-ELi-article-ever.)

Gregg said she was worried about “compassion burnout” setting in and asked people to brainstorm now about how to help people who are no longer receiving paychecks.

Update: According to Mikell Frey, Communications personnel for the City, “The original emergency declaration did not have an end date on it. It was good for only seven days unless extended by Council for longer. If Council had chosen today to not extend the declaration, we may have needed to make some changes. The emergency declaration is not technically tied to the office closures [announced as part of the State of Emergency on March 13 as extending to April 5], but City leadership felt it was important to have that declaration in place at the time that office closures were implemented, so as to make clear to the public the severity of the situation.”

ELi has a special section dedicated to our reporting on COVID-19 for East Lansing. See it here and sign up for ELi’s mailer to stay informed.

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