East Lansing’s Council Gives Mayor Extraordinary Emergency Powers

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Raymond Holt for ELi

East Lansing Mayor Ruth Beier at the Feb. 27, 2020, meeting.

“I just want to say one thing about the agenda,” Mayor Ruth Beier said at the start of last night’s Council meeting.

That one thing was that she had added to the agenda a proposed legal change that would give her extraordinary powers during declared States of Emergency – and she thought there might be a vote to push it through last night.

And then, not long after that, with a 3-1 vote – with Lisa Babcock strongly objecting to giving the Mayor so much power, and with Mark Meadows absent – Aaron Stephens, Jessy Gregg, and Beier moved ahead with Ordinance 1488, expanding the Mayor’s powers over the rest of Council.

The measure came in part as a response to the COVID-19 outbreak traced to Harper’s Brew Pub.  

For her part, Babcock welcomed the idea of trying to find a way to make everybody safer in light of the Harper’s outbreak and the coming reopening of MSU in the fall. At one point, she expressed exasperation that Beier had forgotten to send Ingham County Health Officer Linda Vail an important message from the Council.

Babcock did not think now was a good time to give the Mayor much greater powers.

Raymond Holt for ELi

East Lansing City Council member Lisa Babcock speaking at the Jan. 7, 2020, meeting.

“This is a good draft,” Babcock explained, “but I do not think this is a reasonable piece of law.”

Still, Beier made clear she wasn’t interested in a lot of back-and-forth on this matter, and quickly moved to a vote.

Now, in the event of a proclamation of a State of Emergency, the Mayor has the ability to:

  • limit the size and location of gatherings on public property;
  • close streets, alleys, parks or other public spaces;
  • regulate and/or prohibit pedestrian traffic, including the formation of lines on public streets; and
  • regulate the entry of persons into City buildings and structures.

Violations can result in a civil infraction punishable with a $25 fine. The City Attorney’s draft had called for a $500 misdemeanor, but nobody thought that was a good idea.

What alarmed Babcock was what City Attorney Tom Yeadon had penned under Section 10-34f, “Modification by Mayor.”

According to that section, if the Council hasn’t explicitly acted on extension of the Mayor’s powers – in other words, if the Council hasn’t explicitly said “continue” or “stop” to the Mayor – the Mayor can not only keep going with these powers, she can act unilaterally to take further unspecified actions.

The section at issue says that if the Council “has not acted . . . to modify such orders, rules and regulations, that have been promulgated by the Mayor, they may be amended, modified or rescinded by the Mayor, from time to time, in like manner . . . but shall cease to be in effect upon declaration by the Mayor that the emergency no longer exists.”

So, if Council doesn’t meet, the Mayor can now wield various (unspecified) powers without its consent.

Mayor Pro-Tem Aaron Stephens voted for the law while saying he thought it was worth discussing the change to the Mayor’s executive powers at a future meeting.

Mayor Pro Tem Aaron Stephens at the Feb. 25, 2020 meeting of Council.

He also lobbied for the City to use a heavy hand with regard to signage and other forms of communication about emergency orders. 

“I don’t want power,” Beier said. “I want people not to get sick.”

But more power is what she got.

Made East Lansing’s mayor by her four colleagues on Council, Beier had come into the role late last year with talk about having a “Council of equals.”

For a time, she explicitly pivoted away from the style of Meadows, her predecessor, and took action to distribute power among the Council members.

Nevertheless, since then, she has steadily been increasing the Mayor’s powers.

“We should not have rushed this through on the same night” it was introduced, Babcock told ELi this morning about her lone “no” vote.

Said Babcock, we have to think not only of the current Mayor, but future ones.

In an unusual occurrence, two local attorneys showed up for public comment in advance of this vote to explain why they thought stronger legal action could already have been taken to defend the public against situations like that that went on at Harper’s, with hundreds of maskless patrons in close proximity spreading a virus.

The implication from both the lawyers was that City Attorney Tom Yeadon didn’t understand actions that could already have been taken.

Gary Caldwell for ELi

City Attorney Tom Yeadon at the Council meeting of March 11, 2020.

First, East Lansing resident and attorney Kristin Bellar urged Council to understand that Harper’s liquor license could be revoked if the bar was found to be creating a dangerous public nuisance.

She called such a threat possibly “the sharpest tool in the shed.”

Bellar told Council that if the City Attorney said they couldn’t take this action, they might “want a second opinion” from another lawyer.

Then, East Lansing resident and attorney Patrick Rose Levine walked Council through the Governor’s Executive Orders and what actions could be taken to require face masks.

He said the orders explicitly allow for broad interpretation to support public health. He urged the City and County to look at laws in other places that punish failure to wear masks in public spaces and said they need to protect the health of all of us.

Yeadon counseled that the City could open itself up to lawsuits via various legal maneuvers.

Stephens made clear he was determined to find a way to legally require people wear masks indoors in public businesses, if only to give business owners more teeth when they tell customers they need to wear them.

Again, City Attorney Tom Yeadon advised there is likely no way to do that without being open to a lawsuit. 

Babcock told ELi this morning she’s going to bring the matter back to Council.

“If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right,” she said. “So I am going to bring back to Council a revised version. I am sorry I was unable to rework that in time for last night’s meeting, but the revised version will address masks, and will also be a law that stands the test of time for East Lansing.”

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