Police Activity, Tree Trimmers' Return, MSU's Cost to Residents, and Much More Covered at Council

Tuesday, September 27, 2016, 6:04 pm
By: 
Ian Hoopingarner

Publisher’s note: Last Tuesday (September 20, 2016), East Lansing’s City Council held two back-to-back meetings. The first was a short, voting meeting; see our other Council Capsule on that. The second was a marathon, three-and-a-half-hour discussion-only meeting and is covered here. Audio equipment at both of these Hannah Community Center meetings failed, making it difficult for ELi’s reporters (and anyone else) to hear and also resulting in there being no recording provided by the City, as there usually is. I am grateful to Ian Hoopingarner for composing this Capsule under these difficult circumstances, and to Ann Nichols and Chris Root (who also attended the meeting) for helping. – Alice Dreger

Overview: All five members of City Council were present: Mayor Mark Meadows, Mayor Pro Tem Ruth Beier, Councilmembers Erik Altmann, Susan Woods, and Shanna Draheim. Topics discussed included strategic priorities for the City, BWL tree-trimming, community development grants, strategies for 21st-century policing, new pedestrian crossing signs on Burcham Road, and whether the City should move forward with a local ordinance decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana, which a majority of East Lansing residents voted in favor of in May of last year.

We have a separate report on the marijuana decriminalization issue from Ann Nichols.

New pedestrian crossings: A pilot program to put pedestrian crosswalk signs in the middle of roads is being conducted. The signs are mounted in the middle of the street and notify passing cars of the crosswalk. Other municipalities that have adopted these signs have seen significant improvement in sharing-the-road, especially during peak traffic hours.

The first sign was installed outside of City Hall (shown above), and reactions have been positive. A second installation funded by a grant was done where Burcham Road meets John R Road, to make it easier for East Lansing middle school students to cross. Three more installations have been requested and are planned for where Burcham Road meets Old Hickory Lane, Gunson Street, and Lexington Avenue.

BWL tree-trimming is coming back to East Lansing: Bob Nelson, the East Lansing representative on the Lansing Board of Water and Light (BWL), updated Council on the state of a legal dispute that developed between BWL and East Lansing residents Richard and Conni Crittenden over tree-trimming. The Crittendens had argued that the BWL trimming plans were unnecessarily aggressive. The dispute has gone to court and a resolution has now been reached. As ELi reported, the court found that BWL does have an easement on the Crittendens’ property that allows the company to trim branches on that property, but the judge has allowed the property owners to have their own arborist do the trimming.

Nelson told Council that a letter informing customers of this development should arrive sometime around October 1. He also said that BWL plans on trimming trees in the Oakwood and Chesterfield neighborhoods in the near future.

How much does MSU cost the City of East Lansing? The Financial Health Team is looking at, among other things, the relationship between the City of East Lansing and MSU and is considering recommending hiring an external consultant to examine this issue more closely. A focus of the study will be examining the “true cost” of MSU to the City. While this may bring forward some town-gown tensions, Mayor Meadows was quick to note that “in many ways, East Lansing is a company town” and some inseparable dependencies between the City and University are bound to be found.

ACLU recommends that the Council require public hearings on new surveillance equipment: Nelson, who is also the head of the local chapters of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), recommended that the Council adopt an ordinance that requires a public hearing to be held whenever new surveillance technology or methods are acquired by law enforcement or other first responders. Council would, under this proposed ordinance, be responsible for approving or rejecting new surveillance technologies. A similar ordinance has been passed in Grand Rapids, according to Nelson.

Repairing Bailey Community Center fence: A fence surrounding the park/playground area behind the Bailey Community Center needs repair, a project that will cost between $25,000 and $40,000 according to East Lansing Planning Director Tim Dempsey. Councilmembers Draheim and Woods raised opposing viewpoints over whether or not repairing the fence was a financial priority, with Draheim noting that there is no outstanding reason for any parks to be fenced, and Woods pointing to dogs and children playing soccer as reasons to have a fence. Mayor Meadows added that having a fence around the property is a legal requirement for having a licensed daycare, and the City still plans on having a daycare at the Bailey Community Center after its upcoming redevelopment.

21st Century Policing: During a discussion of the City’s Strategic Priorities, East Lansing Police Chief Jeff Murphy reported to Council on the actions that the ELPD is taking to comply with the findings of the Presidential Task Force on 21st Century Policing. In the past, East Lansing has relied on good-standard procedures to minimize racial bias incidents in the Police Department, and has a pretty good record, according to the Chief.

Now, said Murphy, it has “become obvious that we need to prove” that the ELPD has a good way of dealing with possible bias incidents. Plans to address that need include body cams for police. As ELi has reported, eight body cams have been acquired by the force so far, and officers take turns wearing them.

In response to a question from Mayor Meadows, Murphy said (as he previously told ELi) that the body cameras initially bought had some durability issues, and thus, the police chief wants to acquire new and better cameras, enough for every officer and PACE officer to be equipped with one. The body cameras would be a direct City purchase.

The Department is also working to create a database of footage which will be reviewed every month. The goal is to have every contact with every civilian be documented, and each video labeled with the race of the citizen, who initiated contact, the kind of contact that ensued, and additional comments. The metadata will be searchable within the database.

Meadows said that he wanted public access to the information collected in the ELPD’s new database, including the number of years in the service for officers receiving complaints in the database. During the audience communication period, East Lansing resident Chris Root, who also reports for ELi, requested that information on officer shootings and deaths, the personnel composition of the police department, and the records of detentions also be made publicly available. Murphy replied that the ELPD has in fact released the name of officers receiving complaints in the past.

Police relationships with the community: During the meeting, Chief Murphy also highlighted some activities the Police Department has been conducting, including “ride-alongs”, bike officers, and “good neighbor” programs engaging with fraternities and sororities. After the meeting, the City announced that ELPD will be holding a community forum on police relations on Wednesday, October 19, from 6-9 p.m. at the Hannah Community Center.

Non-conforming rental properties: There is some friction between the landlord community and others in the city on the issue of rental properties that do not conform to zoning. ELi’s Alice Dreger has more on this developing story in a separate report.

Plans submitted for Park District development: Development company DRW Holdings, based in Chicago, has submitted plans last week for the Park District redevelopment project via Convexity Properties. The plans are currently in the staff review stage and will be released to the public shortly, City Manager George Lahanas said.

Collaborating with MSU students: “Embracing” and working together with MSU, and especially with MSU students, has been a central component of the City’s stated strategic economic priorities. City Manager Lahanas, Mayor Meadows, Mayor Pro Tem Beier, and staff noted at last week’s meeting that they had attended university freshman orientation meetings at the beginning of the school term.

Place-making, marketing, and promoting talent: Collaboration on “place-making” and “marketing” projects in the downtown area was also mentioned during discussion of the City’s strategic priorities. Lahanas outlined an objective of establishing a “pipeline to talent” in East Lansing. This would involve actions like marketing the talent of MSU students to businesses who want to open operations in the City, as was done when Jackson National Life opened in the downtown area.

Strategist visit sparks conversation about City workforce: The Downtown Development Authority (DDA) is bringing back “retail strategist” Michelle Reeves for a second consultation with local businesses. In response to the announcement, Councilmember Woods noted that many of Reeve’s recommendations from her last visit had not been taken up by any local businesses.

Councilmember Altmann suggested that a sustained effort by a dedicated manager to develop the downtown area would be more effective than a handful of visits from professional strategists. This spawned a debate over the merits of having downtown development strategy overseen by the DDA and City Staff versus by a single dedicated City employee. Concluding the conversation, Mayor Meadows noted that there has been significant progress in developing downtown, especially considering that the City is “100 employees down” from the number the City had a decade ago, for cost-saving purposes. “Imagine what we would be doing with more employees,” Meadows said.

East Lansing Fire Department submits paperwork to acquire Kevlar helmets, body armor: Lahanas reported that the ELFD has completed the acquisition process for new safety gear, including Kevlar body armor and helmets. These are intended to protect firefighters should they have to respond to a live bomb alert, the City Manager said.

Bicycle infrastructure discussed: The necessary paperwork for becoming a “bike-friendly community” has been submitted, the City Manager reported. On the topic of bicycle infrastructure, Mayor Pro Tem Beier wanted to know if East Lansing could acquire some “bike repair stations” containing simple tools to fix up a bike. Similar repair stations are located on the campuses of Lansing Community College and MSU.

Stormwater, solar, and other environmental projects discussed: A stormwater backup prevention program for basements is ongoing following a lawsuit against the City over basement sewer backups. Director of Public Works Scott House said the City has sent out letters to the community explaining homeowner liability in these situations, and said that the mailing was “well received.” (See City brochure on the issue.)

The Phase II stormwater program was granted a NPDES (National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System) permit, and there will be a DEQ audit later in the year. The City is also pursuing a goal of using “100% clean/alternative” energy, protecting the drinking water aquifer, and working on an inventory of all the trees in the City to complement a replacement plan.

City aspires to be “model employer” with gyms, healthy food: East Lansing is trying to establish itself as a “model employer” by, for example, adding amenities for City employees at their job sites. The police, for example, got a new gym and showers in their office building, and City Hall now has a small workout facility for City employees and a new vending machine with “healthy options.”

Community Development Block Grant: A survey taken by the City shows that most organizations who might receive Community Development Block Grants from the City feel that $2,000 is the minimum amount to justify the administrative costs of receiving the grant. The City is looking to streamline the process so that organizations can apply for grants in the $2,000-$10,000 range.

Reminder: You can speak to City Council during the public comments portion of its meetings or write to Council on any topic at council@cityofeastlansing.com.