The Top Ten East Lansing Stories of 2020

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Clockwise from top left: Council member Dana Watson, Mark Bell, ELPD Chief Kim Johnson, Ingham County Health Officer Linda Vail, Mark Meadows, Ruth Beier, and Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Administrator Elaine Hardy.

What a year, East Lansing! Here are the ten East Lansing stories we think were the biggest of 2020.

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1. Ruth Beier (Mayor) and Mark Meadows resign from City Council.

Raymond Holt for ELi

Ruth Beier, Tom Yeadon, and Mark Meadows at the Jan. 14, 2020, meeting of Council.

Mayor Ruth Beier and Council member Mark Meadows resigned abruptly during the July 14, 2020, City Council meeting following a vote to terminate City Attorney Tom Yeadon’s contract, with Beier and Meadows objecting to how that played out. Aaron Stephens automatically became mayor (because he had been Mayor Pro Tem) and Jessy Gregg was elected Mayor Pro Tem, and those two along with Council member Lisa Babcock opened a call for applications for two new Council members. Twenty-three residents applied, and the Council interviewed 13 before selecting Dana Watson and Ron Bacon.

Ron Bacon (left) and Dana Watson will be the newest terms of East Lansing’s City Council.

The new Council is more racially/ethnically diverse than all previous East Lansing Councils. Watson and Bacon are both Black and Stephens identifies as a person of color. Residents and Council both became much more familiar with the City Charter as a result of the double resignations, and Council pitched and later ditched the idea of asking voters to consider changing the charter to add two more seats to Council

The timing of the resignations was also important. Beier and Meadows left on the eve of an important meeting on the BRA bonds for the Center City District, a $125 million deal that they had helped structure. The termination of Yeadon’s contract led to Foster Swift receiving the City Attorney contract.

2. The Center City District deal frays in multiple ways.

Gary Caldwell for ELi

The Center City District project as seen from Albert Ave.

With the Center City District project just recently finished and occupied, the $125 million public-private redevelopment in the core of East Lansing’s downtown caused major controversy this year as the developers sought to change various elements of the original deal.

In April, we broke the story that the developers were asking Council to remove the 55+ age restriction on Newman Lofts. The Council, which then included Beier and Meadows, were firmly opposed. After Beier and Meadows resigned, the pressure from developer Mark Bell of Harbor Bay kept up, with his company writing letters seemingly aimed at spooking Newman Lofts tenants, threatening legal action against the City, and launching a campaign against ELi.

Alice Dreger for ELi

Harbor Bay Real Estate developer Mark Bell in May 2018 at a celebration of the Center City District project.

We kept reporting, documenting what the developers said in 2017 about the marketability of the senior housing, Newman Lofts’ tenants message to Council to not give in, the developers admitting to Council they’re already leasing to people under age 55, Meadows’ revelation that the developers’ “ask” to get out of the age restriction happened well before the pandemic, and tracking the new Council’s 4-1 vote to not (yet) take legal action on this point.

Then there was the refinancing of the bonds, with the developers’ financial advisor looking to push through a refinance, Meadows saying the real tax capture cap for repaying the bonds is about $50M, not $56M, Mark Bell pleading for help, the bond refinance resolution being rescinded, the Brownfield Redevelopment Authority being wrongly told by its own people that the bonds were facing default, Meadows pointing out the now much-talked-about Developer Debt Service Guaranty (which called for Bell to pay his father $2.4 million), the attempt and fail to get a new bond investor, tense advice from the City’s bond counsel, Babcock questioning the mess publicly, and finally, the City’s new financial advisor recommending refinancing “to avoid considerable headline and reputational risk,” creating possibly our favorite headline of the year.

Phew.

Once the bond refinancing closed, we told you who really benefited. In case you missed it and can’t guess, it was the developers.

3. Complaints from Tito Gasito and Anthony Loggins, Jr., Rock East Lansing Policing.

Gary Caldwell for ELi

Tito Gasito

In the early morning hours of Feb. 9, 2020, Uwimana “Tito” Gasito was arrested along with two others outside the downtown 7-Eleven after an altercation occurred. Gasito later posted on Facebook pictures of the injuries he sustained to his face caused by actions of the arresting officer

The revelation resulted in a peaceful protest against police brutality outside City Hall and closer scrutiny over policing in East Lansing. It was then discovered that the arresting officer, a white man named Andrew Stephenson, had multiple complaints lodged against him from men of color. One of the complaints was made by Anthony Loggins Jr. who was pulled over by ELPD in December 2019 and sustained injuries to his face and eye – injuries similar to those sustained by Gasito – following a “head stabilization” in which Stephenson put his knee on Loggins’ neck or upper back.

Raymond Holt for ELi

Protestors with signs at a protest outside ELPD on Feb. 23, 2020.

Stephenson was investigated and later cleared of wrongdoing by the Michigan State Police. Following that, Ingham County prosecutor Carol Siemons asked state Attorney General Dana Nessel to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate Stephenson’s use of force against Loggins. Stephenson’s attorney, Mike Nichols, mounted a vigorous defense, including attending Council alongside others to defend Stephenson. The Washtenaw County prosecutor’s office, who was assigned to the case, declined to charge Stephenson

ELPD was slow to release information about what happened with Gasito and Loggins, doing so piecemeal. ELPD Chief Larry Sparkes retired suddenly amidst the controversy, and Deputy Chief Steve Gonzalez acted as Interim Chief until Kim Johnson was hired as Chief this fall

Gary Caldwell for ELi

ELPD Chief Kim Johnson

As protests against the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers in May 2020 swept the nation, protestors in East Lansing often referred to the use of force against Gasito and Loggins

Ultimately, 2020 saw a significant public outcry over policing and the lack of independent oversight of ELPD. Council approved the formation of the Study Committee on an Independent Police Oversight Commission, which has been given six months to recommend the parameters for forming a permanent oversight commission. ELi has been steadily following the work of that committee.

4. Council changes East Lansing’s Disorderly Conduct Code, freeing the nipple.

City Attorney Robert Easterly of the Foster Swift law firm advising City Council on the disorderly conduct code at the virtual meeting on Dec. 1, 2020.

Following the outcries over use of force in East Lansing, Council member Lisa Babcock floated five proposals for policing reform, including for the reform of the City’s disorderly conduct code to try to reduce unnecessary or unjust piling-on of charges. Debate ensued over how to manage disorderly conduct code reform in a City that regularly has “celebratory riots,” a term you might think an oxymoron if you didn’t live here. Disorderly conduct legal theory turned real again when, on Halloween weekend, crowds formed and things got burned.   

So what happened? Reform of the code to some degree, including the Council deciding to “free the nipple.”

5. Harper’s makes national news as a Covid-19 superspreader location.

The superspreader event was linked to subsequent cases in 18 Michigan counties.

In June, local restaurants and bars began to reopen as Governor Gretchen Whitmer started lifting some Covid-19-related restrictions. In downtown East Lansing, Harper’s Restaurant and Brew Pub reopened on Jun. 7, drawing long lines and hosting a party atmosphere that some feared would push others away from downtown. On June 22, it was reported that one patron had tested positive for Covid-19 and most likely had the disease while at Harper’s.

The outbreak eventually grew to include at least 192 cases – 146 primary and 46 secondary – and became national news. Here in East Lansing, it opened questions about how local eateries should operate and whether it was safe for MSU students to return to campus

Harper’s owners Pat and Trisha Riley were called to appear before the Liquor Control Commission. Ingham County Health Officer Linda Vail has noted that the spread of Covid-19 in the summer was linked to other bars and restaurants reopening as well, and admitted that confusion surrounding the executive orders from Gov. Whitmer, which Vail described as coming “fast and furious,” contributed to the outbreak.

Gary Caldwell for ELi

Ingham County Health Officer Linda Vail

The outbreak also provided a case study for how the disease spreads. When Harper’s shut down, about 14 cases had presented themselves. Ten times that number would ultimately present as primary cases. No one ultimately hospitalized was publicly linked to this outbreak, although younger patrons were known to have passed the virus to older adults. Eighteen Michigan counties saw cases tied to the outbreak. Later, Linda Vail said the trajectory of the virus’ spread suggests that the spike in cases contributed to more community spread.

The outbreak also highlighted the need for stronger town-gown relationships to mitigate the spread of Covid-19. While the City, Vail, and MSU worked together to create various policies and procedures for limiting the spread of the virus, cases still skyrocketed when MSU students returned to East Lansing, despite most classes being held online.

6. “Remote Learning” radically alters life in East Lansing.

Contributed by an ELi reader

A St. Patrick’s Day party on Gunson Street in March 2020, when MSU went to all-online classes.

The shift to online learning in the ELPS and MSU communities did not come without stress, strain, and controversy. 

In March, the sudden closure of MSU led to an outbreak of crowded student partying, as university president Sam Stanley urged students to stop health-risking behaviors and go home. But having MSU closed and some students, faculty, and staff gone has led to a huge economic problem for many local businesses and the City’s own budget, with the permanent loss of several small businesses and potentially very expensive ramifications for the City’s parking system and income tax. Like many local actors, ELi has been pushing people to spend locally to keep local businesses alive.

Debbie Walton, Elizabeth Guerrero, Lyons, and Monica Fink, elected to the East Lansing Public Schools Board of Education in Nov. 2020.

The management of ELPS schools’ closure and the questions of when and how to reopen schools formed the backdrop for this year’s School Board elections and caused many stressed parents to appeal directly to the board. More recently, impolitic remarks by the teachers’ union president about the pandemic resulted in his resignation, as the district looks to possibly reopen in-person learning for some in January.

With the public health emergency, some ELHS students have been faced from early on with unusual stress as their lives changed suddenly. The on-again, off-again experience in sports, including for the winning Trojan football team, has left many feeling disoriented.

7. A local mask-making brigade filled a safety gap.

“Crisis crafters” made thousands of masks.

As Covid-19 began to spread across the United States in the spring, personal protective equipment (PPE) was in short supply. The general public was told to leave industrially-manufactured medical masks for medical workers’ use, and was later told to use homemade masks to protect others while in public.

Local volunteers came to the rescue, sewing cotton masks that could help prevent those infected with Covid-19 from transmitting it to others. Jessy Gregg, the current Mayor Pro Tem and owner of local fabric and sewing shop Seams, helped to spearhead one local effort. The team made a spreadsheet through which local people and organizations could request masks. Lansing Police and Lansing Fire Departments, Eaton Rapids Medical Center, and area midwives all took her up on the offer.

Gregg and others supported a cadre of volunteers by providing materials, while other community members shared patterns for making the masks. By April 10, the group of roughly 100 “crisis crafters” had sewn 11,000 masks, but the demand kept coming, including from Sparrow Hospital, where frontline workers could put the cloth masks over their N95s. Unlike N95 masks, cloth masks can be washed and reused.

By May, the crisis crafters benefited from an influx of cash donations to support their efforts, and together, they had sewn over 13,000 masks.

Masks made with 3D printers before filters and rubber bands were added.

Christian Palasty, the Director of Technology for East Lansing Public Schools, and Melissa Rabideau, the founder of TinkrLAB both collaborated to produce high-grade filtration masks using 3D printers at East Lansing Public Schools. Rabideau set up a GoFundMe page to purchase filaments for the printers. Soon, other school districts and individuals joined in on the project. Sparrow, McLaren Hospital, and the Lansing Fire Department all benefited from the project.

8. Data shows racial/ethnic and gender disparities in a city where leaders pride themselves on being politically “progressive.”

Gary Caldwell for ELi

Elaine Hardy speaking at the Feb. 12, 2020, meeting of East Lansing’s Human Relations Commission.

East Lansing skews steadily blue on voting maps, but reporting this year by ELi looked at the hard numbers and showed major disparities in racial/ethnic demographics when comparing the ELPS student population and faculty population, major racial/ethnic and gender inequity in the City of East Lansing’s workforce, and people of color being disproportionately stopped by ELPD officers.

The City now has, for the first time, a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Administrator, with Elaine Hardy hired into that position, and Council is undertaking soul-searching conversions about bias, while “weaponizing the police” has been outlawed. But changing the stats that show inequities in ELPS’ demographics, ELPD’s actions, and the City of East Lansing’s workforce is bound to take a lot longer.

Courtesy of Ingham County Health Department.

As of Dec. 22, 2020, East Lansing’s 48823 zip code recorded the most deaths in Ingham County, followed by 48911 in south Lansing.

This year, partly in response to the pandemic, Ingham County and East Lansing declared racism a public health crisis. As nationally, in Ingham County the people suffering from coronavirus outbreaks have been disproportionately people of color, although that was more true here in the early outbreak than the second-wave. More recent data from the county shows death counts rising in whiter areas, including the 48823 zip code, which currently has the highest number of deaths.

9. Voters approved a land sale, but then the plans stalled.

Rendering showing what the windowless brick wall on the north side of the proposed MSUFCU building would look like, looking southwest down Abbot Road. Dublin Square is shown shaded-in in the foreground.

In March, East Lansing voters overwhelming approved selling the City’s parking lot #4 to MSUFCU for construction of an office building. The project would result in a popular local corporation (MSUFCU) bringing office workers downtown during the day, and would create some community gathering space on the second floor. The credit union asked no tax incentives for the project, and in September the Council unanimously approved the design.

But since then, a wrench has been thrown in the plans because the owners of next-door Dublin Square, including Paul Vlahakis, don’t want any of the construction on, in front of, or over that restaurant property. We’re watching to see how this one plays out.

10. ELi receives national attention, as we serve you with a new website.

Margaret Sullivan’s book, Ghosting the News.

Margaret Sullivan of the Washington Post featured ELi in a new book about local news, talking about East Lansing Info during her Fresh Air interview with Dave Davies. We were delighted to have our new website up and running, thanks to Morgan Lees and Lisa Lees, when the burst of national attention hit. It wasn’t easy to manage the onset of a pandemic at the same time as launching the new site, but our great tech and editorial support team made it all work.

Are you impressed with what we do for this community in terms of bringing the news? We do it on donated dollars. If you want to keep it coming, this is what you have to do:

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