The East Lansing City Council largely supported the idea of passing an ordinance to require free menstrual products be available in public restrooms at its Jan. 18 discussion-only meeting, but the conversation primarily focused on one thing: what constitutes a “public restroom.”
The discussion on providing menstrual products came to Council after several representatives from the Associated Students of Michigan State University (the undergraduate student government for MSU) met with members of City Council to encourage the City to take action on the issue. According to several ASMSU students who spoke during public comment, MSU now provides free menstrual products in its bathrooms.
At the Jan. 18 meeting, Council was provided with the text of a similar ordinance recently passed by Ann Arbor’s City Council, but Council member George Brookover, himself a practicing attorney, had questions on the language of the ordinance.
What constitutes a public restroom?
Brookover told his fellow Council members that he supported the idea, but based on the ordinance language, it seemed as though the law would apply to restrooms in restaurants and other private businesses that are open to the public.
“How broad is this? … Does it imply every business?” Brookover asked after asking whether the City Attorney has reviewed the proposed ordinance.
If the ordinance is meant to hold just buildings owned by the City accountable, it appears that the language in Ann Arbor’s ordinance is too broad and includes mandates for buildings not owned by the City, like any restroom that is open for public use but is under a private business’s purview.
But if the ordinance is meant to hold all buildings with restrooms open to the public accountable, the language needs to be refined to clearly indicate its purpose.
Should the City choose to go with the former – to decree that only City buildings must supply free menstrual products – is the ordinance necessary since City Hall and other buildings have already started doing this at the request of staff?
City Manager George Lahanas noted that City Hall has already been offering free menstrual products, like pads and tampons, within their building for a few years now. He has also requested that City staff add other City buildings, like the Hannah Community Center and East Lansing Public Library, to the list of locations that offer these products prior to the approval of any ordinance.
Even with those instructions to staff, it appears that an ordinance will still proceed. Should Council approve language in support of ordering City restrooms to provide these products, it can be used as a first step to one day mandating all public restrooms in the City of East Lansing.
“I would support a broader thing down the road to expand later to allow a phased approach for businesses,” Mayor Ron Bacon said in support of an ordinance that would mandate City bathrooms only.
While how broad this ordinance will become is up in the air, the City Attorney’s clarifications on the matter, as well as updated language for the purpose of ordering only City buildings to abide by this ordinance, will be discussed by Council at its Feb. 8 meeting.
Before Council began deliberation on the topic, several affiliates from ASMSU called in to communicate their support for the potential ordinance.
They also expressed their gratitude to Council for listening to their appeals to take action on behalf of period equity in East Lansing after ASMSU met with Council in October to request they follow in Ann Arbor’s footsteps by passing a similar ordinance for the City.
Period equity is a term that refers to equal access to hygiene products. It also seeks to ensure education about reproductive health, as well as access to waste management and hygiene facilities.
Those that called in were sure to state several statistics indicating how beneficial free menstrual products would be for women in East Lansing.
According to Harvard Medical School, 21% of women have disclosed their inability to afford monthly menstruation products, while 64% of women have reported struggling to afford these monthly expenses, one speaker pointed out.
Every caller said this is the next step that the City could take for period equity, but their comments were made before Council’s discussion, so it is also unclear how representatives from ASMSU would define public restrooms regarding this ordinance. But, at least one speaker referred to how MSU students live off-campus in East Lansing and referenced ELPL – a City-owned building – as logical location for students to procure menstrual products
UPDATE [Feb. 10, 2022 at 11:40 a.m.]: At the East Lansing City Council meeting on Feb. 8, Council member George Brookover moved to approve a policy resolution to require free sanitary products in City-owned public restrooms after double checking that the resolution has the City Attorney’s approval.
After Foster Swift’s Laura Genovich, who currently serves as East Lansing’s City Attorney, confirmed their approval, Council moved to pass the resolution unanimously.
The resolution clarifies previous concerns over the definition of “public restrooms” by designating the ordinance to cover only City-owned restrooms.
While the passing of this resolution ensures the public can find free menstrual products in all City owned restrooms, Mayor Pro Tem Jessy Gregg expressed her wishes to see other businesses in East Lansing act on their own accord pursuant to the City’s initiative.
“I’m hoping other businesses will take this call to action in their own facilities,” said Gregg.