It’s been a big year of reporting for the East Lansing Info (ELi) staff as we’ve worked hard to keep you locally informed and empowered. What will we be reporting and watchdogging for you in 2022, as we continue to carry out our mission to bring East Lansing the news? Here’s what we see coming:
The new Council is going to be making a lot of decisions.
This November’s election meant the installation of a fully-elected Council, replacing what had become a majority-appointee government. Three new City Council members were sworn in on Nov. 9: Ron Bacon, Dana Watson, and George Brookover. Those three joined Jessy Gregg and Lisa Babcock, who were elected to Council in Nov. 2019.
Bacon and Watson are the first Black people elected to East Lansing’s Council, and after the swearing-in on Nov. 9, the five members of Council unanimously elected Bacon to serve as Mayor for the next two years. Gregg was again elected Mayor Pro Tem (substitute mayor), this time in a 4-1 vote, with Brookover voting for Watson.
The new Council is already tackling the issue of who will take over the job of general legal counsel and prosecutor (City Attorneys) for East Lansing. They will also have to decide how to manage the evaluation of the City Manager, which hasn’t occurred since George Lahanas was awarded a new four-year contract in September 2020. Babcock and Bacon had been tasked with that job, but there has been no apparent movement forward.
Meanwhile, the City Manager is facing challenges from his workforce.
Among many challenges with which he’s had to grapple, Lahanas has been dealing with pushback from some City employees who have found the ongoing intensive anti-racism training to be problematic in duration and content. Employees have sent ELi letters in which Lahanas demands that employees behave better in the sessions being run by external consultants.
Those consultants conducted a cultural climate survey under the $153,000 contract, but the City tells ELi it has no copy of the survey, for which the City paid about $20,000. Lahanas has declared an effort to make East Lansing an “anti-racist city” and, with Council’s blessing earlier this year, created a new Division of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, directed by Elaine Hardy.
Under the City Charter, the only two positions for which Council is directly responsible are the City Manager and City Attorney. That said, the Council does also have some indirect power over the rest of the City staff, because it is responsible for approving budgets that shape the rest of the workforce. And City workers have been appealing to Lahanas and Council to obtain pay bonuses under the federal Covid relief money available to the City through the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). Brookover recently introduced a resolution that Council passed to ask the City Manager and City Attorney to provide Council with more information on this possibility. Speaking of Covid politics…
The pandemic is decidedly not over.
With the influx of the Omicron strain, the stressors of Covid have not let up on our local healthcare infrastructure, government, public schools, and businesses. The Parks & Rec Advisory Commission recently pushed the City of East Lansing’s leadership to instill a vaccine mandate for City employees, but so far, neither Lahanas nor Council has even acknowledged that Commission’s letter in public.
By contrast, Michigan State University’s leadership has been taking a more aggressive approach, requiring booster shots for MSU students and employees, and the district leadership of East Lansing Public Schools has been using a “test to stay” approach for exposed students. But we can expect instances of viral exposure and positive tests to ramp up as Omicron sweeps across our area.
The ELPS district has been dealing with a reported rise of student misconduct since students have returned to school from the shutdowns of last year. Teachers and parents report that problems are up, with some expressing frustration over what they see as lack of adequate discipline or racially-biased discipline.
If Covid has a silver lining here, it’s that “placemaking is here to say.”
The City of East Lansing has been looking to address the economic impacts of Covid-19 in myriad ways, ranging from eliminating certain fees for business to imposing a moratorium on water shutoffs, as when around a thousand customers fell behind on their bills.
Among the most notable (and popular) endeavors the City undertook to address the Covid-related economic downturn was its placemaking campaign. Led by Community Economic Development Administrator Adam Cummins, the efforts resulted in a variety of spaces and programs designed to get people downtown, safely, to help sustain businesses and vendors. Last winter, a farmer’s market was held in the M.A.C. Ave. parking garage, a welcome back event greeted MSU students for Fall 2021, and then there was perhaps the most popular of all: The Albert EL Fresco.
This involved a portion of Albert Avenue between M.A.C. Avenue and Abbot Road being closed to cars and turned into a pedestrian-friendly space with seating and other amenities. The EL Fresco — more specifically the decision by Council to discontinue it just prior to MSU students returning — even came up during the Council candidate forum hosted by the Associated Students of MSU (ASMSU).
At that time, then-candidate Bacon declared that “placemaking is here to stay.” He said his hope is to reopen the EL Fresco early enough in the calendar year for MSU students to use it toward the end of the Spring 2022 semester, so the City has some idea of what that crossover would be like.
The original decision to discontinue the EL Fresco after Aug. 15 stemmed from a worry about the presence of thousands of students stretching police resources too thin to deal with an area already causing problems. The City is going to be installing more security cameras in the Albert Avenue area in the hopes of reducing and investigating problems.
Speaking of the issue of violence and policing…
As is true nationwide, gun crimes and violence are up in East Lansing from last year to this year. While it used to be fairly rare for ELi to report shootings, stabbings, and the like, the Ann Street Plaza area seems to have become something of a magnet for trouble, particularly on the weekends.
The matter is made even more complex by tensions regarding recent attempted police reforms in East Lansing. City leadership has moved in the direction of seeking less policing in general — an approach that hasn’t thrilled residents who want more enforcement of laws like speed limits.
ELPD has also shifted towards using a social worker and Neighborhood Resource Specialists for lower-risk interventions aimed at addressing issues of mental health or quality of life. East Lansing also now has a new Police Oversight Commission, bringing an additional layer of scrutiny to the police and their policies and practices.
This fall’s post-game property destruction may well function as something of a test for just how much less prosecution and policing people here will tolerate. Mayor Bacon and Mayor Pro Tem Gregg have both called on MSU to be more responsive to the “couch-burning culture” and general issue of drunkenness and related obnoxious behaviors off-campus.
It looks like 2022 may be a year MSU and East Lansing join up in a new way to confront the alcohol problem, particularly given the recent alcohol-poisoning of four students (one of whom died) in the Bailey neighborhood.
Watch for a lot of debate — and maybe some new game-changing policies — on housing.
The issues of how to manage neighborhoods (especially student rentals) and housing in general continue to be on the minds of many in East Lansing. Redevelopment continues apace around East Lansing and neighboring communities, but that doesn’t mean that everybody is happy with what’s being built, as construction of student housing is far outpacing enrollment at MSU. And a lot of people are worried about possible legislation at the state level with regard to short-term rental regulation.
We expect continued discussion of housing in East Lansing in 2022, with particular attention to what many perceive as the unmet needs of seniors, families with school-aged children, artists, and people with lower incomes.
This discussion may well lead to some new housing policies out of the new Council. There’s talk in particular, among City Planning staff and the Planning Commission, about rezoning downtown to allow for the building of townhouses and small apartment buildings where older houses now stand in the circle around the downtown area.
The City’s financial woes are very likely to remain a big issue.
As ELi reported, the City’s pension debt continues to grow, with the unfunded portion now reaching about $100 million. Lahanas is defending the awarding of new pensions as necessary to hiring good workers, but the City’s financial problems remain a concern among residents, especially homeowners, based on ELi surveys and public comments submitted to Council.
Additionally, the City is currently facing several big lawsuits that have already cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and could cost a lot more if the City loses. Brookover ran on a platform of keeping the City out of “petty” lawsuits, but the City has no choice but to deal with ongoing lawsuits, including one potentially important suit brought by the Nichols law firm under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
The Country Mill suit is expected to see a ruling soon. In that case, owners of an apple farm have argued they were unjustly banned by the City from participating in the market because of their Catholic religious stance against gay marriage at their Charlotte wedding-hosting business. About $200,000 in taxpayer funds has been spent by the City on legal defense in that case alone.
The class action suit against the City for the BWL franchise fee is also expected to see resolution soon. If the City loses that case, it will likely forfeit more than one million dollars in revenue per year, and may have to pay back a large total to BWL customers in East Lansing. The plaintiffs are arguing that the Council essentially illegally instituted a tax via BWL bills.
In terms of revenue, the City might be getting a not-significant payment out of a national suit in which the City is a co-plaintiff against makers of prescription opioids. Additionally, the City is likely to obtain around $12 million total in federal Covid relief funds; how to use that money continues to be debated by Council.
One thing is certain: Many residents want infrastructure repairs.
While the statewide outcry continues to be about potholes, in East Lansing, the bigger area of concern is water infrastructure, namely the storm and sanitary sewer systems. People are tired of dealing with flooding and are now seeking answers and solutions. Flooding has hardly been limited to the hard-hit Glencairn neighborhood, and southern Chesterfield Hills is coping with a persistent smell of poop — an odor homeowners there say has only gotten worse since the big Michigan Avenue sewer rebuild.
City management is looking to deal with these issues, and also to try to reopen the Family Aquatic Center (which has fallen into disrepair), and fix problems at the Hannah Community Center, City Hall, and the Abbot Road fire station. Spending on the parks and trails is being helped by grants from Ingham County and the State of Michigan, but some of that spending remains questioned in terms of the details as people debate what East Lansing can really afford.
The Library is becoming a source of some controversy.
As the City spends over $1.4 million on a new round of repairs to the East Lansing Public Library, the library millages are coming up for renewal in 2022. Council is empowered to decide whether to renew one of those millages, but the second one would require voter approval, and there is talk around town about looking instead into the option of having East Lansing join the Capital Area District Library (CADL).
Usually library millages pass without much discussion in East Lansing, but this year could be different. There’s likely to be a lot of open debate about how best to support this locally beloved institution.
And then there’s the big context: the environment.
The City is looking at ways to reduce its carbon footprint with innovations like the anaerobic “poop digester” at the sewer plant. Solar panels are being installed around town. We’re seeing more bike lanes than ever before.
But some want much more intensive local governmental efforts at reduction of greenhouse gasses, and more data brought to bear on actions that feel symbolically “green” but may not be in fact (like curbside recycling of some materials).
Some people are also tired of what they see as too much tree-killing, but a new survey of the City’s canopy might tell us in 2022 whether we’ve really gained or lost biomass.
One thing is clear: the deer seem really happy to be living here and are eating well. We’re hearing about them from all over town — even near downtown. The City says they’re planning another (controversial) firearm cull with the aim of killing at least 100 deer from January through March.
Increasing population density downtown was supposed to involve people, not deer — and, all jokes aside, downtown is far more populated by humans than it was ten years ago. More projects are on the way in the downtown area, too, with the MSUFCU office building finally underway. Plus, there is expected to be development around Valley Court Park.
The upside of this growth has included some new businesses moving in to serve the increased traffic, and more people to support businesses and the City’s parking system. The downsides are the conflicts about noise, parking, rent prices, regulations, and the question of what downtown should be like at various times of day.
What else will we cover in 2022?
We know from experience that we can’t predict what else might be big in the coming year. But as long as ELi is funded, we will keep you in the know! Thank you to everyone who is supporting this work!
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