Judge rules against East Lansing in legal dispute with Country Mill Farm.
U.S. District Judge Paul Maloney has ruled against East Lansing in its lawsuit against Country Mill Farms, LLC., the Lansing State Journal reported Tuesday (Aug. 22).
The origins of the lawsuit go all the way back to 2017. Stephen Tennes of Country Mill Farms posted on Facebook the business would not allow same sex couples to marry at its Charlotte venue. Subsequently, the city amended its farmers’ market vendor policy to require participants follow the city’s civil rights ordinance at all business locations.
As a result, Tennes filed a lawsuit on behalf of Country Mill, claiming a violation of religious rights.
What ensued was a lengthy and expensive legal battle. Country Mill obtained representation from the Alliance Defending Freedom, a large legal group that typically champions right-wing causes, often pro-bono. In June, ELi reported the dispute had already cost the city $283,000.
Country Mill has continued selling at the market since 2017 when Maloney issued a preliminary injunction against the city.
LSJ reported a city spokesperson said East Lansing is “discussing potential options” after the ruling but did not elaborate further.
Reported by Lucas Day (Aug. 24)
What’s going on with the investigation into the anonymous complaint made to Council?
An ELi reader wrote to ask, “Hi, just wondering whether there has been any discussion/comment about the investigation into the long letter you reported on in April with claims about ethics concerns and overreach by City Council. Council’s statement said that they’d inquire after 90 days if a final report had not yet been issued, and it’s now well past the 90 days.”
ELi has been steadily investigating and monitoring the issue of the anonymous complaint and the investigation being conducted by former Oakland County Prosecutor J. Randall Secontine. Council has not yet disclosed anything about the investigation with the single exception of Councilmember Dana Watson telling ELi last week, in conjunction with ELi’s investigative reporting on the hiring of Robert Belleman as City Manager, “The investigator of the letter [about] charter violations is seeking to understand our internal complaint process for employees.”
On July 30, ELi made a request under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to see all communications between Secontine and the city, including any requests from him to get paid. (Council allotted up to $30,000 for Secontine’s work.) But our request was denied on Aug. 15.
“The City of East Lansing is not in possession of billing records from the law office of Randall Secontine,” the City Clerk’s office said, and “All communications to and from the law office of Randall Secontine are subject to attorney-client privilege,” an exemption from FOIA allowed by state law.
Stay tuned as we keep investigating.
Reported by Alice Dreger (Aug. 23)
Moonlight ExtravaGRANDza returns to welcome back MSU students.
The East Lansing welcome-back event for Michigan State University (MSU) students, Moonlight ExtravaGRANDza, will be held 6-11 p.m. Saturday (Aug. 26).
The name of the event is a play-on-words, mixing “Extravaganza” and “Grand” and showcases the downtown East Lansing area, which spans Grand River Avenue from Valley Court Park to the 600 Block of Grand River Avenue and beyond.
Throughout the evening, East Lansing businesses will offer student deals, there will be giveaways and entertainment. On the schedule are four bands performing at Valley Court Park, a local scavenger hunt where students who complete the hunt will win a free t-shirt and be entered in a raffle to win AirPod Pros or a 43-inch Smart TV, jousting and knockerball at Albert El Fresco and Valley Court Park, as well as other giveaways and opportunities to win prizes.
“This event provides a great opportunity for students to get to know their downtown, while also providing our businesses and community with an opportunity to welcome students to East Lansing,” said East Lansing Community & Economic Specialist Matt Apostle. “Come join us for an unforgettable night of fun in downtown East Lansing.”
Reported by Mya Gregory (Aug. 22)
ELPL Board organizes for the search for a permanent library director and talks about staffing needs moving forward.
At the Wednesday (Aug. 16) East Lansing Public Library Board of Trustees meeting, newly hired Interim Director Angelo Moreno shared the July 2023 director’s report, highlighting multiple successful events held at the (ELPL), including a jigsaw puzzle competition, Stories in the Garden and Shark Day.
Library staffing needs were also brought to the attention of the board by Moreno. He said the needs are focused in three areas: teen services, tech service and circulation services.
The board also spent time discussing plans for hiring a permanent library director. The position became open after the resignation of former director Kristin Shelley in June. Board members decided the first step will be putting together a search committee comprised of 10 members: one City Council member, one staff member from East Lansing Public Schools, one member from the Friends of the East Lansing Library, two community members and three ELPL members.
The board indicated tasks of the committee will include drafting and posting a job description, drafting interview questions and vetting candidates before they interview for the position with the library board.
Reported by Mya Gregory (Aug. 22)
Is Trader Joe’s still coming to town across Grand River Avenue from Whole Foods?
Asked by ELi about the project at the end of last month, Tim Schmitt, Meridian Township’s Director of Community Planning and Development had this to say: “To our knowledge, Trader Joe’s is still coming to Meridian Township and we look forward to their arrival.”
But the site itself, at 2755 E. Grand River Ave. across from Whole Foods, shows no sign of progress and lush weeds in places.
ELi reported back in November 2022 that the property is owned by a limited liability company (LLC) associated with the Chappelle family of developers, who operate chiefly under the name Strathmore Real Estate Group. We explained then how Scott Chappelle’s legal troubles could be impacting the project.
A new search of the Ingham County Register of Deeds’ records shows no new action on the land, and Strathmore Real Estate did not respond to requests for comment.
Reported by Alice Dreger (Aug. 22)
LSJ reports Chappelle has lost his law license.
Developer Scott Chappelle, who led several projects in or near East Lansing and is currently serving a federal prison sentence for tax evasion, has lost his law license, according to the Lansing State Journal.
The LSJ reported Monday (Aug. 21) Chappelle’s law license was suspended after he accepted a guilty plea in April, 2022, but an order last month made the disbarment final.
In October, ELi reported that Chappelle had been sentenced to 38 months in federal prison. Chappelle prevented the IRS from collecting taxes he and his business owed for eight years, while spending “incredible” sums on things like travel, jewelry and cosmetic surgery.
Reported by Lucas Day (Aug. 22)
In a surprising twist, the owners of the private land at 530 Albert Ave. say the city told them to redevelop the property.
A controversial redevelopment proposal will come to both East Lansing’s Planning Commission and the Downtown Development Authority this week, on Wednesday (Aug. 23) and Thursday (Aug. 24) respectively, with both groups expected to take votes on whether to recommend Council approve the proposed five-story workforce housing apartment building.
The site, at 530 Albert Ave., constitutes the western two-thirds of the now-municipal parking lot behind Peanut Barrel. The land is privately owned by members of the Metzger/Fabian family, long-time East Lansing real estate.
ELi reported the project brought strong opposition at the Aug. 9 Planning Commission meeting, with criticism centered on what would be the loss of about 90 parking spaces. Several people speaking at public comment sharply criticized Metzgers/Fabians for looking to redevelop the land.
On Friday (Aug. 18) the family sent a memo to Interim Planning Director Tim Dempsey for inclusion in the Downtown Development Authority’s upcoming agenda stating that, in mid-2022, “city representatives expressed the desire for the lot to be developed and [said] that they would not enter into another long-term lease with the Metzger/Fabian family” to keep the land a public parking lot. The memo also notes they own retail space in the block and states the family “truly believes that development of affordable housing is one of the most important opportunities for our community.”
Given the debate over this project, ELi is looking into which “city representatives” initiated this proposed redevelopment. We previously reported in a special investigative report that the mayor signed a letter supporting the project without first consulting the rest of Council in a public meeting.
Reported by Alice Dreger on Monday (Aug. 21)
Black Cat Bistro is turning into Los Tres Mex Grill.
The space at 115 Albert Ave. that currently houses Black Cat Bistro will become Los Tres Mex Grill if all goes according to plan. The outdoor patio will remain in use – in fact, the management is looking to expand the outdoor seating a bit by putting six extra seats along Albert Avenue. The proposed hours are 11 a.m. to 2 a.m., and alcohol would be served. The plan depends on Council approving certain details at its Sept. 5 meeting.
The sample menu for Los Tres Mex Grill shows various options for burritos, chimichangas, quesadillas, tacos and more, with entrees priced around $10 and up. The building’s façade will be modified to convey a Spanish flavor, as shown in the rendering above. The eastern half of the building will still house the Chabad Jewish Center, whose sign (shown below) is a favorite among the ELi team.
Reported by Alice Dreger (Aug. 21)
What’s happening in East Lansing? Here’s what was featured in the East Lansing Insider Saturday (Aug. 19) mailer.
Summer is wrapping up and East Lansing Public Schools (ELPS) students will settle into the new school year Wednesday (Aug. 23). Remember to slow down and be patient as our young people and families find their way back to the schools. Here’s the 2023-2024 ELPS calendar.
Yet another important week in City government.
In the City of East Lansing government, last week was a pivotal as City Council voted 3-2 on Sunday (Aug. 13) to appoint Robert Belleman to serve as the next city manager. Belleman will assume the position if contract negotiations go smoothly and he passes a background check. Reporter Mya Gregory attended Sunday’s meeting to capture Council’s thoughts leading up to the vote.
The decision to hire Belleman was not without controversy. Interim Director of Planning, Building and Development Tim Dempsey was heavily favored by City residents and staff. Additionally, Belleman was removed from his position in June as Saginaw County controller following accusations he created a toxic workplace environment. Investigative Reporter Alice Dreger and Reporter Dustin DuFort Petty listened to the audio from the roughly two-hour long meeting where Belleman was removed and and also relayed comments from his previous co-workers.
Resident comments led Mayor Pro Tem Jessy Gregg to float the process of how Council could reverse its decision to appoint Belleman prior to Tuesday’s (Aug. 15) City Council meeting in a since-deleted Facebook post. City Desk Editor Luke Day had the story.
But at the Council meeting, there was little talk about the decision to appoint Belleman. Instead, there were many comments about divisiveness within the city and the need to reel in the rhetoric back towards civility. Luke’s report on Tuesday’s meeting can be read here.
In other city news, Governor Gretchen Whitmer on Monday (Aug. 14) blocked a ballot initiative from going out that would have allowed voters to decide if City Council elections should be flipped from odd- to even-numbered years. The governor’s office found the proposed charter amendment “conflicts with the Home Rule City Act and does not otherwise comply with the Michigan Election Law.” Here is Alice’s breaking news report on the governor’s decision.
The East Lansing Board of Education also made a major decision this week to fill a board member position after the resignation of Amanda Cormier. After interviews with two candidates, the board appointed Gary Holbrook to serve on the board. Dustin reported on the Monday (Aug. 14) board of education meeting and has insight into how Holbrook plans to approach his new role.
ELi will continue to monitor what’s happening in the City and that means we have a few meetings to track this week. On Monday (Aug. 21), the Commission on the Environment will meet and Planning Commission will convene on Wednesday (Aug. 23). There will then be a trio of meetings on Thursday (Aug. 24) as the Downtown Development Authority, Brownfield Redevelopment Authority and Building Board of Appeals will all gather.
The agendas for those meetings have not yet been released, but when they are they can be found here.
It wasn’t all meeting coverage last week for ELi.
ELi Reporter Adan Quan provided an in-depth feature story about long-time, now-retired MacDonald Middle School band director Patricia Kroth. Here’s his story from Wednesday (Aug. 16).
While it is not officially Small Business Saturday (that’s in November), Reporter Sarah Spohn took time to check in with two small businesses who are surviving and thriving. Read how Risky Studios and Campbell’s Market Basket have done it through the height of the pandemic and its lingering effects.
East Lansing’s treasured MSU Beal Botanical Garden is celebrating 150 years.
The Beal Botanical Garden is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year. Reporter Dustin DuFort Petty spent time talking with Interim Director Dr. Alan Prather about the garden – its storied history, how it is today and where it’s going in the future. Mark your reading calendars for the story. Here’s his story from Sunday (Aug. 20).
Also mark your calendars for Sept. 13 when the Beal Botanical Garden will hold its official 150th Year Celebration from 3-7 p.m. Here are details of that event as well as other activities on the garden calendar.