What’s Going on with Meetings at the City of East Lansing? We Are Trying to Figure That Out.

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Gary Caldwell for ELi

From left: Mayor Pro Tem Aaron Stephens, City Attorney Tom Yeadon, City Manager George Lahanas, and Mayor Ruth Beier at the March 11, 2020, meeting of Council.

Here’s what we do know: The Mayor of East Lansing would rather keep City of East Lansing government meetings to a minimum while they have to happen virtually, because she believes virtual meetings limit the opportunity for citizen participation. The other four members of Council want the show to go on.

We also know there will be an East Lansing Downtown Development Authority (DDA) meeting held virtually this Thursday starting at noon. (No agenda yet.)

And we know there will probably be a City Council meeting next Thursday (April 30), the first of what will probably be four meetings to talk about next year’s budget – discussions that normally would have started in March.

We also know the City is putting up a new page at the City’s website with information about public meetings.

But notices may only be posted 18 hours before they happen (the minimum required under state law), and City Manager George Lahanas has not answered questions about why his staff won’t blast notices about meetings out via the many online channels the City has – the press release list, the Council of Neighborhood Presidents’ list, the City’s e-Dialog list, and the City’s social media accounts.

Mayor Ruth Beier tells ELi that, other than talking about the budget, “I don’t want to do anything important virtually because it is hard for people to participate.” She says, “I want everyone to have access to public input which is not possible virtually.”

Beier makes clear: “I am not interested in or moved by what other cities are doing. We are having as few meetings of any kind as possible for two reasons: (1) This strategy keeps the most people safe. (2) We value and need public input on everything we do and public input is severely restricted in virtual meetings.”

Mayor Pro Tem Aaron Stephens disagrees: “I would like to see meetings commence. We have many things that we need to address (from police oversight, to effects of the coronavirus, business health, development concerns etc.) and I would like to be able to talk about the budget in public. On top of that we have two new Councilmembers who I am sure have a lot of questions about the process for the budget.”

Council member Mark Meadows – the Mayor before Beier – also wants action. “After the Governor appropriately issued an order allowing remote meetings, it was our (staff’s) job to figure out how we can hold electronic meetings with public participation. They have been diligently working on that and I think after this week we will be ready to give it a try as a Council.”

Says Meadows, “We need to get back on at least a semblance of our regular schedule. Our citizens, like everywhere else, are nervous about what the virus impact is doing to our lives and some amount of normalcy has to be restored. Electronic meetings will not be perfect but I think our citizens will understand that and adapt to it. We have a lot of work in the hopper and we need to get going on it.”

Meadows believes problems with disruptive hackers (like those faced by the Library Board of Trustees last week) can be minimized by holding meetings in the mornings and having a good staff moderator. The East Lansing School Board met successfully with a moderator last week.

Like Stephens and Meadows, Council member Lisa Babcock tells ELi, “It’s time for the council to start meeting again. Public oversight is an essential function.”

Babcock adds, “It’s time to start work on the budget. We also need to address the policing issues, the conduct of some of the downtown bars on March 14, and many more issues. We have the legal and technological abilities to adapt our meetings to safe practices.”

Says the fifth Council member, Jessy Gregg, “I do agree that it’s more difficult to have as fruitful of a discussion in the electronic format than it is at an in-person meeting, but I think that comes down to practice really. There are a lot of people who are working from home right now who are managing to get their jobs done. I’ve attended two meetings now and they’ve gotten progressively smoother.” 

Gregg sees public participation potentially being enhanced by virtual meeting: “Under the in-person meeting format, you have to be physically able to attend the meeting, which is not possible even for entirely able-bodied people. If you are a parent with small children, for example, you might not be able to attend an evening meeting with a completely open-ended time frame but you can dial in, listen to the discussion and take a brief opportunity to comment when offered while still taking care of your other responsibilities.”

Gregg supports time-limits on public comment, even when they happen in-person: “Meetings that routinely stretch out past the three-hour mark are technically open, but also very difficult for regular citizens to fit into their schedule. We should be accessible, not just available. I would also like to see one meeting happen at a different time of day so that people who can’t attend an evening meeting have an opportunity to engage with their government.”

We’ll keep you posted on what we find out about upcoming City meetings. Subscribe to ELi’s daily news alerts if you want to stay as informed as possible. (It is free, and you can always unsubscribe.)

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