What Decisions Were Made at Tuesday’s “Discussion-Only” City Council Meeting?

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Dylan Lees for ELi

East Lansing Mayor Jessy Gregg at the Aug. 19, 2021, meeting of City Council.

During an approximately three-hour-long meeting on Tuesday evening  — billed as “discussion-only” but actually involving a formal legal settlement vote plus several consensus decisions  —  East Lansing’s City Council covered a range of issues from a proposed plan for rental license conversions to food trucks to flooding to hair discrimination.

Here’s a look at what went down.

Council voted unanimously to support a settlement in an opioid national lawsuit.

Attorney David Mittleman, who has been representing the City of East Lansing and other Michigan governments in a national lawsuit that seeks to recoup costs associated with the opioid crisis, came to Council to ask for a vote on the proposed settlement. 

No materials on the matter were made publicly available at the meeting or following it, and it is not yet clear how much funding the City will reap from the suit after attorney fees. Council voted unanimously in favor.

Another item not on the published agenda came up in public comment: flooding.

Two East Lansing residents — Allison Murad and Cyndi Roper — spoke about how they personally had been affected by recent floods and their desire for more dialogue from the City about what might be done to address this problem.

Contributed to ELi by Pat Firtl

Water and sewage flooded into houses on Northlawn Ave., where the sewers are being reconstructed.

As ELi has previously reported, the area along Northlawn Avenue, where there is currently sewer reconstruction underway, has been hit particularly hard. On Tuesday, Council Members Lisa Babcock and Ron Bacon both expressed a similar sentiment to residents: that the flooding and torn-up construction zone are no mere coincidence. 

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Lisa Babcock at East Lansing’s City Council meeting on Aug. 10, 2021

But Roper, who serves on the City’s Commission on the Environment and works with the Natural Resources Defense Council, noted that problems are occurring all over town and recognized during her comments that this issue will likely need a broad, collaborative approach between the City and residents to solve the problem.

ELi will be bringing more reporting on the flooding in East Lansing.

The issue of food truck regulation was also revisited.

In his Council member comments, Ron Bacon reported that he and a number of his Hawk Nest neighbors found the decision about food truck regulation at last week’s Council meeting problematic. He said he wished for less regulation of problems that don’t (yet) exist, calling the City’s action “parental.”

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Council member Ron Bacon at the Aug. 19, 2021, meeting of City Council

But Mayor Jessy Gregg and City Manager George Lahanas defended the legislative decision from last week, arguing that the move opened up the opportunity for neighborhood associations to invite food trucks when they could not legally do so before.

Responding to Hawk Nest President Anne Hill’s questions about why the City feels the need to regulate so much, Gregg said she wanted to challenge Hill’s idea that there is a “negative impulse” by the City to control things. She said she thought it was best to push through the legislation quickly before getting input from residents so as to help neighborhoods bring in food trucks for fall gatherings.

Neither Hill nor Bacon appeared persuaded that the matter had been managed well. The invitation of food trucks can only be done by “recognized” neighborhoods and requires them to register the invitation of food trucks with the City. Neighborhoods are now limited to having up to two food trucks up to twice a year.

Two leaders from Chesterfield Hills expressed their frustration with the City’s handling of the rental license conversion program for that neighborhood.

In essence, the City is looking at how to use $300,000 it has in a special fund to convert houses that are student rentals into owner-occupied homes.

But according to both a staff memo and an oral explanation from Director of Planning, Building and Zoning Tom Fehrenbach at Tuesday’s meeting, the City staff had been advised by the City Attorneys at Foster Swift that a mechanism to transfer a rental license out might create openings for the City to be sued. So, staff put a pause on that specific idea.

The intention is to bring back a more formalized draft version of the program to convert rental licenses in Chesterfield Hills for Council consideration in the future.

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George Lahanas and Jessy Gregg at the Aug. 10, 2021, meeting of City Council

The opinion from Foster Swift to the City was kept completely confidential, and, challenged on this, Mayor Jessy Gregg and City Manager George Lahanas sought to explain that all opinions from the City Attorney to the City or Council are protected under attorney-client privilege. They claimed that no opinion from the City Attorney could be shared unless Council took a formal vote on whether to release the material, an approach that is markedly different from the more open approach of former City Attorney Tom Yeadon and prior Councils.

Chesterfield Hills resident Mark Terry, who has worked on the rental license conversion issue with a group of neighbors for many years, came and spoke at public comment, specifically challenging the City Council to make public the opinion from Foster Swift. On Tuesday, Council eventually decided by consensus to have Foster Swift prepare a version of the opinion to be released to the public. That apparently won’t be available until October. 

Terry, along with Diane Wing — another long-time leader in Chesterfield Hills — expressed their annoyance with the City for taking so long to get a program put together and then balking at carrying out the license transfer, something they both supported. Both found the withholding of the City Attorney’s opinion about their neighborhood’s program unreasonable.

Read more about the license transfer concept in this prior reporting from ELi.

The City is also looking at new ways to engage the public when it comes to getting feedback on how to spend Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) money.

A requirement of obtaining U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) CDBG funds is engaging the public, and so the City has to submit a Citizen Participation Plan (CPP) to HUD as part of securing the funds. Council members Dana Watson and Ron Bacon had previously expressed dissatisfaction with how last year’s CPP was handled.

On Tuesday, new Community and Economic Development Specialist Matt Apostle — formerly a placemaking intern with the City — presented a plan to City Council for how the City intends to carry out the CPP for Fiscal Year 2023, which begins July 1, 2022.

In a brief presentation (with accompanying powerpoint), Apostle explained that the City will essentially follow the current CPP, but with a few additional add-ons. These measures include creating a Community Development Advisory Committee with “relevant stakeholders” and creating a public application process for individuals or entities to apply for CDBG funds.

The goal of these changes, Apostle said, is to increase the level of public input on how these funds get spent and to try and identify specific populations, groups, or public infrastructure that might benefit from outreach or funding. 

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Shanna Draheim when she was on East Lansing’s City Council on Sept. 19, 2019.

Council was generally in favor of Apostle’s plan, and welcomed him to the City. Gregg did ask how the Committee’s membership would be assembled. Recent Council appointee Shanna Draheim, who in 2019 argued for not using any CDBG funds on social services, said she thought the pendulum had swung too far on the CPP approach and she was glad to see it coming back.

Apostle said that staff is still working out the exact function and membership of the Committee, but said there would likely be Chairpersons or designees from other City boards and commissions.

Council was very supportive of amending the City Code to prohibit hair-based discrimination.

This matter was brought forward by City Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Director Elaine Hardy.

Hardy explained that Council could amend the Human Relations Chapter of the City Code to prohibit hair discrimination, but the City Attorneys warned that method would require numerous other revisions of the Code. Hardy’s advice to Council on Tuesday, instead, was to follow the lead of a resolution that was passed by the Ingham County Board of Commissioners in 2018. 

That resolution, rather than amending large swaths of county law, simply amended the definition of race to be “inclusive of traits historically associated with race, including, but not limited to, hair texture and protective hairstyles. For purposes of this definition, ‘protective hairstyles’ includes, but is not limited to, such hairstyles as braids, locks, and twists.”

There are also bills at both the national and state level to enact similar prohibitions on hair-based discrimination.

Hardy suggested City Council could take up a similar resolution to amend the City Code at a future meeting, and was met with enthusiasm by the five members of Council.

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Council member Dana Watson at the Aug. 10, 2021, City Council meeting

“This is a great idea,” Mayor Pro Tem Dana Watson said. “I lived during the 80s and I have had, in comparison to my child — my oldest who is a sophomore, whose hair is natural — I have had my hair straightened, texturized, relaxed. I’ve had locks before. And it’s nice to be in a place where there are policies like this where I can come through doors and people don’t automatically look at my natural hair and believe that I am not as qualified as someone that has a different hair texture than myself. And as a mother of girls, and even just of little people, with curls and kinks, it’s nice to raise them to love their hair. That their hair is beautiful and that they are just as hireable as any other person with straight hair in America.”

Ingham County Sheriff Scott Wriggelsworth failed in his efforts to get Council to sign on to his rebuke against County Prosecutor Carol Siemon’s new policy regarding felony firearm charges.

Mayor Jessy Gregg elicited a consensus from the Council on this matter. Heather Brothers has a full report on this for ELi.

Staff also got Council’s consensus “blessing” to put out an RFP regarding redevelopment of Valley Court Park and surrounding areas.

Council members reshaped the Request for Proposals (RFP) concept brought to them by staff and, without taking a vote, gave the staff an okay to move towards an RFP without bringing the matter back to a public meeting. Alice Dreger has a full report on this for ELi.

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