The ELi team just wrapped up a busy year of reporting in 2023. And, now, as we move into the new year, there are several critical movements in the city that our team will be closely monitoring. Here are some of the topics we see on the horizon for 2024.
How will new city leadership mesh?
In October, Robert Belleman took over as city manager, marking the start of a new era of leadership in East Lansing. Belleman comes to the city with a long history in administrative municipal work.
However, Belleman was removed from his previous position as Saginaw County controller by county commissioners amid accusations he created a toxic workplace environment. Belleman has spoken openly about the situation, saying he was blindsided by the accusations and that new commissioners wanted him out.
City Council has also been overhauled after the November election. Mayor Ron Bacon, Mayor Pro Tem Jessy Gregg and Councilmember Noel Garcia were replaced by Erik Altmann, Mark Meadows and Kerry Ebersole Singh. Meadows and Altmann have each previously served on Council, while Singh was the election’s top vote getter.
The new members join George Brookover and Dana Watson on Council. Notably, Brookover favored former Interim Director of Planning, Building and Zoning Tim Dempsey for the city manager job.
Responding to questions from ELi immediately after the October vote in favor of hiring Belleman, then-candidate Meadows said he was “astonished” by the Council’s decision and stated his favored candidate was Dempsey. Altmann, also in the midst of campaigning, shared Meadow’s view that Dempsey was the better candidate and said the Council should have deferred the decision to the new group after the November election. Singh did not state a preferred candidate but shared Altmann’s sentiment that the decision should have been deferred to the new Council.
Regardless of reservations held by Council and many in the community during the hiring process, Belleman holds the top job in East Lansing.
Belleman comes to the job following an exodus of many top level employees. He will be tasked with refilling vacant positions, helping to guide department leaders taking on new roles and maintaining employee morale. How he interacts with Council and other city staff members will be worth monitoring.
Safety in the downtown area will continue to draw attention.
For more than a year, public safety officials have been raising concerns about safety in the downtown area, as there have been frequent fights late on weekend nights and more guns being found in the city. The East Lansing Police Department (ELPD) highlighted the situation in presentations to the Downtown Development Authority (DDA) and the Downtown Management Board (DMB).
Addressing public safety has been an ongoing point of interest for City Council, the ELPD and DDA. However, indications are there is still more to be done.
With conversations about increased lighting downtown and more cameras being installed, safety downtown will continue to be a main concern for residents and a focal point of coverage for the ELi team.
Police accountability and the East Lansing Independent Oversight Commission.
A little more than two years after its formation following the murder of George Floyd by police, the East Lansing Independent Police Oversight Commission (ELIPOC) has made significant strides in pursuit of police accountability.
The commission is tasked with addressing longstanding and deeply rooted issues, while only being allowed to make recommendations – not unilaterally rewrite policy. Despite the difficult task, the use of force reports ELIPOC receives from ELPD have been a giant step for police transparency. ELPD’s response to the recently drafted use of force recommendations will be worth monitoring.
While widespread change takes time and effort, the actions of ELIPOC in 2024 will be vital in a city that is trying to close a significant racial gap in policing.
Does the overhauled school safety plan reduce violence?
Last year, school safety was one of the top concerns for East Lansing residents, as Board of Education meetings were packed, Bacon held a listening session on the topic and district leadership rolled out a new safety plan.
At least externally, it seems the changes have been working, as there have not been the same scary stories coming out of the district as there were early in 2023. But will the trend continue for the next year?
In addition to the safety measures already put in place, there could be a safety bond decided on by voters. The bond would cover changes to several district buildings, including secure entrances, camera and technology improvements, and interior door hardware that allows teachers to lock their doors from inside.
What new developments are coming to the area?
With so many major new housing, dining and other new businesses in the works, it will be interesting to see what developments are able to open their doors and what setbacks may occur.
As ELi reported earlier this month, there is new hope for a workforce housing project at 530 Albert Ave. that appeared to be dead after Council rejected a proposal in October. Will the revisions made by American Community Developers (ACD) be enough to win over detractors and pass through Council this year?
Sticking with the theme of stalled developments, will this finally be the year that a plan for the Evergreen properties is conjured up?
After an exclusive agreement with River Caddis expired over the summer, new proposals for the property could be rolling in. The site and its challenges have been on the radar of many, including students in a Michigan State University (MSU) class who pitched creative ideas to DDA members and city officials on how to develop the space.
The new year will also bring new dining establishments to downtown. In fact, a new hot chicken restaurant is expected to open on Albert Avenue a couple weeks into 2024. There’s been ongoing work on a Mexican restaurant opening where Black Cat Bistro used to operate. And Jolly Pumpkin is expanding its offerings by adding a MASH Bar next door to its current space.
Stepping outside downtown, there’s the Trader Joe’s that has long been planned to open on Grand River Avenue across from Whole Foods. In September, ELi reported that Trader Joe’s parent company was taking over the project and there was hope the location could be open by summer 2024. Many local residents have said they are excited for the grocery store to open. ELi will keep you updated on progress.
Elections will be central again.
After City Council elections were a top priority for the ELi reporting team in 2023, we will shift our attention to a new slate of elections in 2024.
From the primary elections early in the year to the presidential elections in November, ELi will be monitoring trends and useful voter information that is provided by the City Clerk and Secretary of State’s offices.
In 2022, when races included the governor’s race, controversial ballot initiatives and much more, students stayed in line for hours after polls closed to cast their votes, drawing praise from Bacon and other city officials. Will there be a similar scene this year or will more students adapt to utilize tools like early voting and any reason absentee?
ELi’s coverage of board and commission meetings will continue.
While boards and commissions are often overlooked, attending and covering these meetings are a vital part of ELi’s work.
Board and commission meetings give important context to proposals that are not always apparent just from watching City Council in person or the recording. The coverage also gives insight to how ideas develop, as boards and commissions often provide significant feedback before recommending projects to Council for consideration.
Notably, other local media rarely cover East Lansing board and commission meetings and, as of now, only the Planning Commission is recorded and available for the public to watch. ELi provides coverage of these meetings for members of the public who are unable to attend in person.
In 2024, ELi will continue to send reporters to as many board and commission meetings as we can, so readers know early on what proposals are moving up the chain.
The ELi team is excited about the challenges to come.
After a busy 2023, we look forward to the breaking news, detailed analyses and in-depth investigations that we will be bringing to readers next year.
It’s no secret the team looks different after ELi founder Alice Dreger penned her farewell letter earlier this month. But the news will continue to unfold and we will continue to deliver reliable nonpartisan reporting. You, our readers, are important to the process. We rely on you to hold us accountable, to let us know what we are doing right and doing wrong, and to ask questions that you want ELi to answer.
We want to thank our supporters for making another great year of reporting possible. We want to wish our readers a Happy New Year, as we look forward to all the challenges ahead in 2024.
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