ASK ELi: Attack Ad's Claims about Altmann

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Wednesday, October 28, 2015, 12:09 pm
Alice Dreger

Above: an image from the mailer in question.

ELi (East Lansing Info) is a nonprofit, noncommercial, nonpartisan news service for East Lansing, and one of the services we provide is to check out claims of “fact” when a big dispute breaks out during East Lansing elections. For example, we have previously checked out the claim by the PAC Neighborhoods 1st that our City’s total debt amounts to $185 million, and we have looked into the facts behind a dispute between sitting Council members Ruth Beier and Nathan Triplett over retiree-related debt.

Since the Lansing Regional Chamber of Commerce’s political mailer attacking Council candidate Erik Altmann started arriving in East Lansing mailboxes yesterday, we’ve had a number of readers ask us to check out the “facts” named in the mailer. Here we provide what we’ve been able to find out.

1. The mailer quotes Altmann as saying, “Sometimes you need to say NO to get what you want. And that’s what we should do.”

The citation given for this quotation is the video for the Planning Commission meeting of August 26, 2015.

It is true that Altmann is a Planning Commissioner and that he said this at that meeting.

The mailer, however, seems to suggest that Altmann said this about the new project that is planned to replace the old blighted Taco Bell Building. Altmann actually said this line in conjunction with discussion of a proposed new downtown bar, Tin Can, wanting to stay open serving alcohol until 2 am. Tin Can is moving into the former Melting Moments site, now occupied by Spencer’s Stateside Deli.

According to City staff’s minutes of the meeting, which were approved by the Planning Commission, Altmann was raising a concern about “undue concentrations” of late night bars when he made the comment about saying “no” to get what you want. From the minutes:

“Altmann further stated the other issue is the undue concentration [of late-night bars in the downtown area]. From his perspective, we are well past the point of there being an undue concentration and what is at stake is an opportunity cost. If a restaurant serving alcohol goes into that space it means that something else is not going to go in that space. He continued the reason we have standards of review is to control the use because that allows us to push things in particular directions that we have collectively decided we want to see [in order] to see some area develop. We have an opportunity now to take a step in a direction the code licenses us to take and he thinks we should take it. He also stated they heard last night at the Form Based Code Tutorial that sometimes you need to say ‘no’ to get what you want and he thinks that is what should be done here.”

Tin Can’s request was ultimately approved by Planning Commission, with Altmann voting against. It was then approved by Council in a contentious 3-2 split vote, as we reported. Nathan Triplett, Diane Goddeeris, and Susan Woods voted in favor, and Ruth Beier and Kathy Boyle voted against, agreeing with Altmann on the “undue concentration” and “lost opportunity” concerns.

2. The mailer states as “FACT: Altmann was the ONLY member of the East Lansing Planning Commission to vote against redeveloping the blighted Taco Bell building across from the Eli Broad Museum.”

Here the mailer cites the Planning Commission’s minutes for May 27, 2015.

It is true that Altmann was the only Commissioner to vote no on this project, at 565 East Grand River Avenue, at that meeting.

At the meeting, according to the minutes, before the vote occurred City Planning staff expressed considerable concern about the project having a “high number (16) of small 4-bedroom units which may appeal to only one demographic group,” namely students. Numerous Commissioners expressed the same concern about the 4-bedroom units.

In response to that conversation, Altmann “said he appreciates staff’s position and said the desire is to have a mix that compliments the housing stock in that area. He said possibly the way to negotiate that is with a more extended conversation with the developer to find a way to alter the design that makes sense for everyone. Altmann recommended Planning Commission not take action on this tonight other than making [its] position clear through conversation.” Planning Commission decided to move ahead, and Altmann voted against.

When this project then moved on to City Council for approval, a number of Councilmembers had the same concern as staff and Altmann about the large number of 4-bedrooms units. City Council sent the developer, David Krause, back to the drawing table, and he came back with a site plan that eliminated all of the 4-bedroom units. City Planning staff Darcy Schmitt told Council that the revised design, without the 4-bedrooms, represented a “drastic improvement.”

The project was approved and also granted a $1.5 million tax increment financing (TIF) deal in a contentious 3-2 split vote. In voting in favor of the TIF deal, Councilmembers Susan Woods and Diane Goddeeris named the developer’s willingness to eliminate the 4-bedroom units as one reason they supported the TIF. Nathan Triplett also voted for the TIF, with Ruth Beier and Kathy Boyle voting against because, they said, the City can’t afford it. They said, however, that they liked the project’s final design.

3. The mailer states as “FACT: Altmann claims he wants to address blight, but he OPPOSED a unanimous City Council plan to expedite blight elimination at the Big Bank Building near Grand River and Abbot.”

The citation given for this claim is “Public Response May 4, 2015.”

Public Response is a local discussion site moderated by site owner Jim Cuddeback. Altmann posted two statements to Public Response on that date.

In the first, he speaks of creative ways to develop downtown, but there is no obvious reference to the blight at the corner of Grand River Avenue and Abbot Road.

In Altmann’s second post that day, he weighed in on ballot measures, including recommending people vote against a City Charter land sale amendment. This, then, appears to be the post to which the mailer’s citation refers.

The land sale Charter amendment, which passed, eliminated the need for 60% of voters to approve Council’s ability to vote on land sales of public properties valued over a certain amount, making it so that only a simple majority of voters have to approve giving Council’s the okay for such land sales. In the post, Altmann said he opposed the Charter change essentially because he didn’t trust the existing City Council to make good decisions; he wanted to keep the supermajority requirement. He argued that if a project makes sense, land sales will get supermajority approval of the voters, as they sometimes have.

Altmann also said in the post that he thought some voters had been misled about what had to happen to end the blight at the corner. A vote that had earlier failed to reach a supermajority, to authorize the sale of parking lots farther north in the Park District area, did not actually involve the blighted corner. In Altmann’s words, “the City doesn’t have to sell the parking lots to fix the blighted buildings downtown, which are all on private property. Straight talk from City leaders on this issue would have helped dispel some of the distrust in the community.”

Contrary to Altmann’s statement here, not all of the blighted buildings downtown are on private property; 303 Abbot Road, the “Little Bank Building,” is owned by East Lansing’s Downtown Development Authority.

When the mailer refers to “a unanimous City Council plan to expedite blight elimination at the Big Bank Building,” it’s unclear to what it could be referring. City Council did unanimously vote to put the land sale Charter amendment on the ballot, to let the voters decide if the Charter should be changed. But because the Big Bank Building is privately-owned, it’s unclear how Council’s unanimous vote to put this Charter change on the ballot could be equated with a “plan to expedite blight elimination at the Big Bank Building.”

4. The mailer states as “FACT: Despite unanimous City Council support, Altmann OPPOSED bringing Jackson National Life Insurance Company to downtown East Lansing even though the company has invested $12 million and created 300 jobs.”

The citation given for this is “Lansing Regional Chamber PAC Questionnaire 2015.”

We don’t have the Chamber’s questionnaire or the results, so we can’t look at this claim very well. Here’s what we do know:

According to mLive, Council gave Jackson National a tax exemption worth “nearly $1 million over the next 12 years,” saying the company would invest “$12 million and 200 jobs in downtown East Lansing.” The vote was 4-0, with Diane Goddeeris absent.

At his campaign website, Altmann says about this claim in the mailer, “I have no idea what they’re talking about. I opposed the tax breaks that the City Council gave Jackson National Life. Why those were necessary is not clear.”

So whereas the mailer says Altmann opposed bringing Jackson National downtown, Altmann says he only opposed giving the company a large tax exemption.

5. The mailer states as “FACT: Altmann claims he wants greater transparency but he is backed by shadowy dark-money groups that have repeatedly broken campaign finance laws and pledged to obstruct progress in East Lansing at any cost.”

The citation for this is our article on the PAC Neighborhoods 1st. So the mailer’s reference to “groups” seems, in fact, to be to one “group.”

I asked Altmann if he is now or has ever been a member of Neighborhoods 1st.  He told me has never given any money to them or had any official relationship with them, that he has not been endorsed by them, and that they have not offered him any money. He has not taken any money from any PACs. (We show here which candidates have taken PAC money.)

Is Neighborhoods 1st a “shadowy dark-money” group? I reported on what the PAC’s legal filings showed in terms of donations, so I’m not sure how the money is “dark.”

Has Neighborhoods 1st “repeatedly broken campaign finance laws”? As I mentioned in my article on them, they had some late filings and math errors, so if you count that as “breaking campaign finance laws,” then they have, although they filed corrections on all of the errors.

Has Neighborhoods 1st “pledged to obstruct progress in East Lansing at any cost”? I’m not sure how I would assess this claim in the absence of any statement from Neighborhoods 1st that they have pledged to do so. I can find no such statement.


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