Yet-To-Be-Installed Security Cameras Provide a Glimpse into East Lansing’s Politics and Policy

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Dylan Lees for ELi

By virtue of their offices, City Manager George Lahanas and Mayor Ron Bacon are voting members of the DDA.

The hope is that, once they’re installed, a new set of six security cameras in downtown East Lansing will help deter, detect, and solve crime. The Downtown Development Authority (DDA) recently approved spending up to $40,000 in public money to buy and install the new cameras, and on Dec. 14, Council discussed the matter, tacitly giving the plan their blessing.

But even before installation, these cameras offer a look into the current state of East Lansing politics and policy on a number of issues, from public access to government records, to policing powers, to the pattern of expenditures made without any bidding process, to the trend emerging in newly-elected Council member George Brookover’s comments indicating that he’s particularly interested in data-based decisions and following the money.

A taller skyline has meant more trouble on the ground, specifically along Albert Avenue.

Speaking to Council on the matter at Council’s Dec. 14 meeting, East Lansing Police Captain Chad Connelly explained that, as East Lansing’s skyline has changed, so has what’s happening on the ground around the new taller buildings.

Referring obliquely to a rash of recent violent altercations downtown around the area of the intersection of Albert and M.A.C. Avenues, Connelly told Council, “With the new developments that we’ve had in the downtown over the last couple of years, it’s really changed the dynamic of where people gather, and where we are seeing crowds, where we are seeing some of the events that are concerning in the later hours.” 

“The dynamic that has been created with the new high-rises and the new traffic corridors has really condensed our late-night crowd into a really confined space,” Connelly continued. 

That area is where the cameras will be located: on the east and west side of the Marriott Hotel, on the Albert Avenue parking garage pointing toward Grove Street and the Ann Street Plaza, and in the alleyway behind SBS (Student Book Store). 

Dylan Lees for ELi

William Sharp Park seen at night in Nov. 2021.

There will also be a camera installed in Sharp Park facing south along Abbot Road towards the bars, with the cost of that last camera set-up yet to be determined, but potentially covered by the $40,000 approved by the DDA. 

The DDA is paying for these new cameras, as the City isn’t drawing taxes from these new high rises.

With the exception of The Hub, all the new high-rise buildings downtown were built using Tax Increment Financing (TIF) plans, capturing new taxes to support those redevelopment projects. Additionally, in 1991, East Lansing’s City Council approved a special TIF to capture taxes from a wide area of downtown to support activities of the DDA — that tax-capture area has expanded, repeatedly, since its inception.

That means that most of the property taxes being paid downtown never make it to the City’s coffers. The DDA maintains a separate fund, with decisions about those public monies made by the people Council names to the DDA — including the Mayor and City Manager, who are voting members of the DDA.

Dylan Lees for ELi

Mayor Ron Bacon being sworn in at the Nov. 9, 2021, meeting of City Council.

Right now, the DDA is pulling in about $850,000 in taxes annually from local taxing authorities, including the City’s General Fund, to use for the DDA’s projects. That means the money that would normally go to pay for police and fire services, public works and so on is instead being used by the DDA for what it chooses. 

In addition to that, downtown property owners are subject to a special property tax that pulls in another $225,000 per year for the DDA.

In this case, the DDA has decided to contribute $40,000 of its roughly million-dollar annual public revenues for these security cameras.

But the expenditure wasn’t bid out.

City staff justified the lack of bidding out this new project by saying they already have a vendor, license, and software for cameras in the parking garages, so it makes sense to just stick with that vendor — Harvey Electronics & Radio of Wixom, Michigan. 

Answering questions from Council, Economic Development Administrator Adam Cummins told City Council that, based on his conversations with other staff members in the Parking and IT departments, there was no point in bidding out the work when they were quite happy with Harvey’s services.

It would be most cost-effective to stick with Harvey, Cummins explained. Brookover asked how that could be known without competitive bids. There was no answer to Brookover’s question.

Curiously, the estimate from Harvey includes no accounting to pay for storage of the last 30 days of footage “in the cloud” from each of the six new cameras — a significant expense. It isn’t clear who will be paying for the data storage and management, be it the City’s General Fund, the DDA, or some other source. 

During the presentation by Cummins, Brookover and Council member Lisa Babcock went on to ask about the reliability of and warranty on the products being purchased. Cummins said he wasn’t sure.

“If we were to take bids,” Babcock said, “reliability might be something we would expect them to answer for.”

Dylan Lees for ELi

Council member Lisa Babcock at the Nov. 9, 2021, meeting of City Council.

A lack of bids is something we’ve been seeing a lot of lately, including for a third-party review on the Northlawn Avenue flooding disaster and for hundreds of thousands of dollars in “change orders” on repairs to the library, among others. 

Brookover and Babcock, as indicated by the comments and questions regarding these cameras, have been indicating some degree of irritation with the lack of bids, overall.

And then there’s the lack of data that bothers Brookover.

Brookover asked Cummins how the locations for the cameras were chosen, and if data on relative activity levels in various spots downtown factored into the decision.

The answer was that staff feels these would be the most effective locations for monitoring problems.

Then Brookover asked if there was any quantitative research — such as peer-reviewed academic studies — to show that implementation of these kinds of cameras actually contributes to public safety in a measurable way. When ELPD Captain Chad Connelly responded with anecdotal reports from fellow law enforcement officers, Brookover wanted more.

Dylan Lees for ELi

Council member George Brookover at the Nov. 9, 2021, meeting of City Council.

“Did anyone in this process go and get any studies from, I don’t know, a school of criminal justice someplace, or New York City Police Department…that demonstrates there is actually an effect in terms of decrease — in gun violence for example,” Brookover asked. He asked if the DDA had obtained or considered any data to support the expenditure.

Brookover continued, “I’m not cross-examining you, I’m just curious…You know we always get into a situation where we think we’re going to fix something, so we’re going to invest some money — it’s going to fix something — but I guess I’m always worried about, is that really going to fix it? Or is it going to help to fix it?” He concluded, “I want to see statistics that are valid.”

To that, Connelly said he would be happy to go find some research, even though these cameras have already been approved for purchase and installation.

For his part, Cummins used a line that has become a bit of a mantra among City staff: “This isn’t a fix. This is just another tool in our toolbox.”

How will the cameras be used?

Council member Dana Watson had questions along these lines: Would there be signage telling people to “smile, you’re on camera,” and who would be seeing the footage?

Dylan Lees for ELi

Council member Dana Watson being sworn in at the Nov. 9, 2021, meeting of City Council.

There will definitely be signage, Cummins said, the wording of which is yet to be determined. City staff, including police, want signs about the cameras, because they believe they will make some people feel safer and deter others from committing crimes.

But as to the question of who would see the video footage, the answers seemed contradictory. 

Connelly referred to ELPD’s surveillance policy to assure Council there would be no troubling use of the footage. He said the cameras and video would only be used to investigate crimes, missing persons, and the like, although then he also said they would be used to monitor crowd formation and to check to see if garbage was piling up in City-owned trash receptacles.

And Cummins then added that his team — which is housed within the Department of Planning, Building, and Development — would hop on and use the video if, for example, some placemaking amenity went missing. The gist is that they’d be used in an investigatory capacity, not for constant surveillance.

But, Cummins’ comments suggest more than the police will have access to the cameras and footage. And while ELPD has a surveillance policy, the Department of Public Works and economic development staff do not. 

One thing is clear: the City thinks the public should have very limited access to the footage.

Much of the discussion at City Council focused on the question of whether footage recorded by these cameras would be subject to Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which gives the public the right to access public records, with very limited exceptions.

City Manager George Lahanas told Council that the plan was to use a third-party hosted “cloud” service that will wipe out the footage every thirty days. (Again, it is not clear who is paying for that.)

Because the footage will be “hosted in the cloud, we’ll never take possession of the data, so we’re not going to — we’re never going to download the information unless we have a reason to [closely] look at it,” Lahanas said.

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City Manager George Lahanas at the Aug. 10, 2021, Council meeting

Only if it is downloaded for, say, a police investigation, would it become “a public record” subject to FOIA, Lahanas said.

But Brookover — an attorney who has represented many plaintiffs (including ELi) in FOIA cases against the City of East Lansing and other government agencies — expressed what looked like skepticism at that reading.

And, in fact, Michigan’s FOIA law defines as a “public record” a record that is “prepared, owned, used, in the possession of, or retained by a public body in the performance of an official function from the time it is created” (emphasis on “used” added).

It would seem difficult to claim that video footage that City staff is viewing is not being “used by a public body in the performance of an official function.”

But Lahanas, Connelly, and Cummins have all insisted that as long as staff members are viewing the footage recorded on someone else’s server, even if they are viewing them for City business on their City-owned devices, it’s not a public document.

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