East Lansing City Council on Tuesday re-upped a policy resolution that streamlines the process for restaurants in the City to apply for expanded outdoor seating.
The resolution passed, 3-1, with Council member George Brookover voting against. Mayor Ron Bacon was absent from Tuesday’s meeting.
It’s worth noting one item that wasn’t on the agenda for Tuesday’s meeting: A proposed contract to hire Robert Easterly as the City’s prosecutor.
Due to Bacon’s absence, that piece of business — which had already been pushed back from February to Tuesday’s meeting — was not on the agenda. The proposed contract will apparently come back for Council’s consideration and potential approval on March 15 at a “discussion only” meeting.
Additionally, with the unanimous passage of Tuesday’s consent agenda, Council approved a settlement agreement relating to a lawsuit brought by attorney Mike Nichols about a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.
Brookover, the lone opposition, is once again outvoted — this time on setting administrative policy for outdoor seating approvals for restaurants.
City Council passed a series of policy resolutions in the last few years in response to the pandemic, including ones that pared back the administrative hurdles for restaurants seeking to temporarily expand outdoor seating. The general logic was that easing the burdens allowed restaurants an easier path to doing business and provided more options for people to feel safe while patronizing eateries in East Lansing.
It also fits with a lot of placemaking efforts that are ongoing in the City, like the Albert EL Fresco which is slated to return in late April or early May.
What was being pursued on Tuesday evening was an extension of that streamlining, which is currently in effect, through Nov. 15. Prior to that end date, according to Planning and Zoning Administrator Peter Menser, Council will be presented with a permanent policy to streamline the administrative process of approving what are ultimately modifications to site plans.
Brookover first asked Menser a number of questions about the origins of the policy change amid the pandemic, which Menser deferred in part because he only recently joined the City of East Lansing’s staff after coming from Meridian Township.
Brookover also sought to clarify that changes to the capacity would not exceed whatever the maximum capacity on the site plan is specified to be. This is the case, as Menser noted there are a number of restaurants that are approved for a certain number of seats but actually have fewer.
Brookover asked whether there was staffing capacity — either at the East Lansing Police Department or with City staff — to be counting the number of people at establishments to make sure they were not exceeding whatever the approved capacity was. Brookover also asked ELPD Captain Chad Connelly about the enforcement and patrolling of establishments.
Generally, there are patrols or checks of places that serve liquor in the City, either by ELPD or state-level agencies. Connelly said that head counts are a part of that work in response to Brookover’s query. An establishment could always be reported to authorities, too.
Ultimately, Brookover sought to amend the policy to only run through Aug. 30, positing that it made sense through the summer but not necessarily through the return of Michigan State University students in the fall and the beginning of football season.
But as has been the case in a number of votes since he was sworn in to Council, Brookover stood alone in his dissension and was outvoted.
The settlement approved by Council is the latest chapter regarding a 2020 Freedom of Information Act request from attorney Mike Nichols that seeks a bevy of records — including from the personal devices of three then-Council members.
Nichols represented Andrew Stephenson, the ELPD officer at the center of two separate complaints of excessive use of force in December 2019 and February 2020, respectively. The Washtenaw County Prosecutor’s Office, which was asked to conduct an investigation into Stephenson’s actions, exonerated Stephenson.
Amid the fallout of those cases, Nichols filed a wide-ranging FOIA request on July 10, 2020, that sought extensive records from then-Mayor Ruth Beier, then-Mayor Pro Tem Aaron Stephens, and Council member Jessy Gregg.
Gregg, being the only one of the three remaining on Council — Beier and Stephens both subsequently resigned, albeit for different reasons — voted to approve this agreement that will involve disclosure of some personal text messages and other communications.
As ELi previously reported on the FOIA lawsuit, Nichols asked for phone records, text messages, email, internet browser histories, photos, movies, PowerPoint presentations, and so on. He wanted copies of these materials from any device that these three elected officials had used in the course of City business, including personally-purchased and City-provided cell phones, personal computers, laptops, and tablets. Nichols also asked for copies of any conflict of interest disclosures made by Beier, Gregg, or Stephens.
Per the terms of the now-approved settlement agreement, the City will pay $5,000 in attorney fees over to Nichols and his attorney in this case, Josh Blanchard.
Additionally, the City will give over to Nichols a bevy of pertinent documents relating to Andrew Stephenson, ELPD, and more.
The “sources” of said records are the same four things for each of Beier, Stephens and Gregg, respectively:
- Personal cell phone;
- City-provided cell phone;
- Personal computer, laptop, or tablet device used for City business;
- City-provided computer, laptop or tablet.
What, specifically, Nichols seeks from those devices is spelled out in the settlement agreement, available here.
This article was updated at 8:25 a.m.