Council Member Babcock Seeks Formal Report on eBay Land Sale

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Friday, January 3, 2020, 3:26 pm
By: 
Alice Dreger

Recently-elected East Lansing City Council Member Lisa Babcock will ask her fellow Council members to support her request “for city staff to create a report regarding the eBay land sale, including a chronology of events and identifying decision-makers.”

The surprise item appeared on the January 7 Council agenda when it was published this afternoon. The item listing gives no additional information.

Reached for comment this afternoon, Babcock said about the eBay sale, “Questions linger, and as we are looking at drafting policy [for Council and City staff] for going forward, I think it is wise to see what we can learn from the experience.”

ELi broke the story last March that the City had auctioned off the right to purchase a 6.4-acre parcel of publicly-owned land on Merritt Road, near Costco, but that only a handful of selected individuals had been notified about the auction, which was held on eBay.

Following bidding by at most three parties – the bids were submitted under online screen names – the parcel was sold for about $1 million to a marijuana industry player. Before closing the deal, the purchaser obtained site plan approval from City Council for a medical marijuana provisioning center, hotel, and strip mall, and then immediately sought to flip the deal for $12 million. (It’s now without a specific price and the line “price is negotiable.”)

Many have speculated the City could have obtained more money for this parcel if it had openly advertised the sale, given that the property had recently increased in value due to rezoning of the land and the opening of Costco nearby.

Babcock told ELi today, “The decision to post a sale of City land on eBay lacked transparency” because it was unclear who made the decision and why.

She said the report she is asking for would constitute “our chance to reevaluate whether eBay sales are a valuable tool. If so, how can we make the process more transparent? Is this the right way to sell City land?”

City Manager George Lahanas has named the low-cost of listing a property for auction on eBay as the reason why that means was used. He has also suggested that the property was unlikely to attract higher bids.

Babcock ran her campaign in part on the issue of lack of transparency, calling the eBay land sale “the elephant in the room” at the ASMSU-sponsored candidate debate.

Jessy Gregg, the top vote-getter in the November 2019 election, also ran on the issue of transparency and named the eBay land sale as a problematic case.

First-time challengers Gregg and Babcock obtained votes from about 20 percent more voters than the next two vote-getters, incumbents Mark Meadows (who subsequently ceased to be mayor) and Erik Altmann (who lost his seat). Meadows and Altmann had both defended what happened with the eBay land sale deal, along with outgoing Council member Shanna Draheim.

Regarding who made the decisions along the way, Babcock said today, “We just have a basic right to know. That should not be some sort of state secret.”

East Lansing’s City Charter allows for “The Council, or any Council Member” to “request information of any employee or officer of the City regarding the conduct of any department, office, or officer of the City.”

The Charter also states that “The Council may make investigations as to municipal affairs, and for that purpose may subpoena witnesses, administer oaths, and compel the production of books, papers, and other evidence,” but such an investigation has not occurred in recent memory.

What Babcock is proposing is something simpler: that City staff produce a report and that Council review the report for purposes of informing future policy.

 

 

 

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