Who is making the decision to cancel meetings of the City of East Lansing’s boards and commissions into mid-February because Covid is supposedly making it too risky for them to meet?
The City Manager and Mayor refuse to say explicitly, and it appears that even some members of City Council don’t know who is making the decisions.
Since receiving the news that the City has decided to cancel virtually all governmental meetings except for City Council through Feb. 11, ELi has now tried three times to find out who is making these decisions. Our latest attempt came last night when we posed the question at Council’s regularly-scheduled meeting.
But this time, as earlier, no one in an official capacity would clearly answer the simple question.
Responding to an emailed question from ELi after the meeting, Mayor Pro Tem Jessy Gregg wrote last night, “I was contacted by Mr. Lahanas to ask if I had an objection to canceling (which I don’t) but I don’t know where the idea originated. It was my impression that this was a consultation between the Mayor and Manager but that’s just my assumption.”
City Council continues meeting in-person at the Hannah Community Center, with face-masking and social distancing.
But the current Covid wave has apparently been deemed by someone — or someones — as too dangerous to allow the Planning Commission, the Downtown Development Authority, the Historic District Commission, the Parks & Rec Commission, and myriad other appointed East Lansing governmental bodies to hold what would be their normally-scheduled business sessions.
According to online calendars, the City of Lansing and Meridian Township are continuing to conduct normal boards’ and commissions’ business in February, while East Lansing stays shut down through at least Feb. 11.
At last night’s City Council meeting, City Manager George Lahanas stayed silent on the question, while Mayor Ron Bacon said the following: “I’ll speak more anecdotally to the question of meetings. Any meeting that involves members of the community, we’re gonna err on the side of keeping them safe and not bringing them into small places when not necessary.”
He didn’t identify who was “we” in the context of deciding to cancel these meetings.
Bacon continued: “We are as anxious as anyone to deal with some time-sensitive issues that do fall under those boards and commissions but I would – however we come to those conclusions I’m open to whatever it takes to keep members of the community safe and out of those small spaces and meetings until we see fit to have safe spaces for people to be in. It’s just we’re at that point in the pandemic per all medical professionals and science so it’s just the time to err on the side of caution in those areas.”
There was no explanation as to why boards and commissions couldn’t just use the same larger space at Hannah Community Center that Council has been using to meet with social distancing.
When the City Attorney noted that the state legislature has made no movement towards again allowing virtual government meetings, Mayor Ron Bacon called the state’s non-action on this “disappointing.”
Meanwhile, Michigan State University is restarting in-person classes as planned on Monday, Jan. 31, and East Lansing Public Schools have continued to conduct in-person learning throughout the Omicron phase of the pandemic.
Update, Jan. 26, 10 a.m.
Council member Dana Watson, who was absent from last night’s meeting, responded by email this morning:
“I was notified by the City Manager that the meetings would be cancelled, when it happened in January and again when it was extended into February. As a Councilperson, it saved me time because I agreed and was trying to figure out how to advocate for a safer, different decision for those that attend the boards and commissions sans city pay and in person. So, I didn’t see it as a hierarchal decision from City Manager Lahanas or Mayor Bacon and I did not ask who ‘made the decision’ because I understood that I could object, agree and/or explore alterations.”
When asked in a follow-up, “Were all the council members canvassed in this way by the City Manager?”, Watson replied, “Typically, that’s the case. I don’t know how others saw or heard about this though. I had verbal conversations and received e-mails that included all of council. It’s not prefaced with who decided.”
Michigan’s Open Meetings Act (OMA) requires that all decisions of the City Council be made by a quorum at a meeting open to the public. According to the state’s OMA handbook, the OMA defines decision as “a determination, action, vote, or disposition upon a motion, proposal, recommendation, resolution, order, ordinance, bill, or measure on which a vote by members of a public body is required and by which a public body effectuates or formulates a public policy.”
Canvassing members individually outside a meeting is allowed, but public officials using individual communications outside of public meetings to essentially reach quorum consensus of a public body is known as “round-the-horn” decision-making, which the OMA handbook notes “violates the OMA.”