New City Council Plans New Style; Citizens Express Hopes

Wednesday, November 18, 2015, 11:27 am
By: 
Alice Dreger

Above: East Lansing’s new City Council: Mayor Mark Meadows, Shanna Draheim, Susan Woods, Mayor Pro Tem Ruth Beier, and Erik Altmann

Following a contentious election, the new East Lansing City Council began its two-year course of business last night with a number of Councilmembers indicating they want a change of tone and approaches. Recurrent themes among Councilmembers and also citizens who spoke last night included desires for civil dialogue (often spoken specifically in response to the Lansing Regional Chamber of Commerce’s attack ads), for greater government transparency, and for optimal management of major issues in terms of public discussion and movement towards approval.

New councilmembers, new Mayor, new Mayor Pro Tem:

The Council meeting began with City Clerk Marie Wicks swearing in of the newly elected members: Erik Altmann, Shanna Draheim, and Mark Meadows. The three then joined sitting Councilmembers Ruth Beier and Susan Woods at the table for the election of Mayor and Mayor Pro Tem.

Only Meadows was nominated for Mayor, and only Beier was nominated for Mayor Pro Tem. Both were elected unanimously to their respective posts.

As is traditional, the three newly elected members gave thanks and opening remarks.

Draheim said that there are differences of opinion in our community but she hopes that the five Councilmembers will act as role models and leaders of respectful public discourse. She said she was committed to elevating public discourse in the community. She promised to work hard and said she was looking forward to serving the community.

Altmann said that East Lansing has a great community that will keep an eye on Council and guide it in the right direction. He remarked that collectively a lot of good can be done in the next few years and he said he was looking forward to it.

Meadows, who is also a past East Lansing Mayor, said that two-thirds of those who had voted had voted for him. He promised not to let them down and said he would try to convince the other third that they should support him. He noted that he is the first mayor to serve from Clinton County instead of Ingham County. (This is because Meadows now lives in a north-side Clinton County neighborhood annexed by the City.)

As mayor, Meadows said he plans to treat with respect those who come to the podium to speak, although he did remind them there are many who wish to speak and suggested they keep their remarks to five minutes.

Citizens express their hopes and concerns to the new Council:

A number of citizens spoke at the podium to express the hope and expectation that Council and staff will listen to citizens. Roy Saper of Applegate Lane told Council, “You are the hope and instruments for change that will bring to our city a greater sense of humanity and action….and not bias towards special interests.” He said he was “encouraged” that this Council wants to show courtesy, responsiveness, respect, and fiscal responsibility.

Saper said in his remarks, “The bow-tie era of attempting to strengthen one’s own political future and agenda, while ignoring or disrespecting the voices of the community who have come before this Council, is now history.”

Meadows later seemed to take issue with this, saying former Mayor Nathan Triplett (to whom Saper was referring in these remarks) served on Council “through some difficult times.” Meadows thanked Triplett as well as outgoing Mayor Pro Tem Diane Goddeeris and outgoing Councilmember Kathy Boyle for their service, and said he hoped “we quit looking at the past other than for lessons, and that we look forward.” He said he didn’t want to hear attacks on previous Councilmembers. Meadows added, “You can now criticize us, going forward.”

Ray Vlasin of Cricket lane thanked the previous Council and congratulated the new. He said those recently elected were highly responsive to voters during the campaigns and he expected that responsiveness would continue. Vlasin bemoaned “one element [that] forced its way into East Lansing politics that was unwanted, grossly undesirable, and ought not to continue” into future elections, namely the Chamber of Commerce’s election attack ads on Altmann.

As co-chair of the Government Relations Committee of the Harrison Meadows Neighborhood Association, Vlasin said that he and his neighbors want the public record to show East Lansing is not interested in having the Chamber spend its money in this fashion. He suggested the thousands of dollars spent attacking Altmann would better have been spent helping local entrepreneurs. He said that “those responsible should be identified by the Chamber board and held accountable.”

Jay Brant of Blanchard Drive said East Lansing is a great place to live and that he especially appreciates emergency services, including the team that saved his wife’s life this summer. He said he does not want to see those services diminished and that he is concerned about “welcoming developers with an open checkbook.” He asked that the City Attorney research and provide information to Council about how tax increment financing (TIF) is supposed to work in terms of proposals, review, and approvals—to follow statutes and standards. He said that the cars students drive suggest they do not need the taxpayers of East Lansing to subsidize their housing through TIF.

I spoke to say that throughout the last year, but particularly during this election, we at East Lansing Info heard repeatedly from our readers that what they want is greater transparency about our local government, whether that be in terms of voting records and reasons for votes, campaign contributions, staff business, or what happens at “minor” meetings. I suggested Council consider spending the money to televise work sessions and otherwise promote transparency, including through support of FOIA (the Freedom of Information Act).

Meadows responded by saying that next Tuesday, at Council’s work session, there will be a discussion of how this Council will operate and the question of televising work sessions will be discussed.

“Defending” East Lansing against the State legislature:

Meadows later indicated that at next Tuesday’s work session Council will also be discussing the nonconforming rentals issue and the possible reconstitution of the committee of landlords and neighborhood representatives that had previously discussed this issue. Landlords are wanting to make certain improvements to their rental houses which they are currently prohibited from doing. Representatives of the neighborhood associations most affected by rental nonconforming houses are generally hesitant to allow these improvements, concerned about further degradation of their quality of life.

The City had held two discussions on this issue, bringing together landlords and representatives from the five neighborhoods most affected, as well as Meadows then as Housing Commissioner. But nothing has occurred since at the City level, and the landlords have moved on to the State to seek the solution they want.

Last night, Meadows explained that he wants to bring the rental nonconforming discussions back alive in the City because “the state is basically trying to impose its decision on this very issue on the City of East Lansing.” (See our report on the state-level activity on this.) Meadows said the State committee working on the bill at issue is trying to take away East Lansing’s right to govern on this issue. He said, “The place to resolve that issue is here, not at the State Capital.”

Last night, the new Council passed, on a consent agenda, the referral of a new draft ordinance on nonconforming rentals to the Planning Commission, Housing Commission, and University Student Commission. About this, Meadows said, “It is important for us to mount a defense. This ordinance is part of that defense” against East Lansing landlords joining with the State committee to move governance of this issue to the State.

Beier pointed out that, by having this on the consent agenda, the rental nonconforming issue was just being referred to other groups for study, not acted upon quickly in terms of passing of an ordinance. Indeed, she said she might not ultimately support the drafted rental nonconforming ordinance but that she supported immediately acting to refer it to other commissions to get work going on it, as a defense against the State-level action. Altmann agreed with her that this is a complicated issue but worth moving along through referral.

Three major new issues set to be discussed in public hearings on December 1, marking a possible shift in how Council works:

Besides using the consent agenda to reawaken City attention to nonconforming rental houses, Council also used the consent agenda to set public hearings on three major new issues, as we reported yesterday was planned.

These three public hearings, all now set for December 1, involve (1) a draft ordinance to allow the City to knock down “dangerous” vacant buildings, like those blighted downtown, (2) a draft ordinance designed to protect certain trees, and (3) a draft ethics ordinance aimed at forcing disclosure of campaign contributions when a Councilmember’s contributor has active financial business before Council.

This approach—using a consent agenda to send major new ordinance drafts quickly to public hearings, with no input from boards and commissions first, and no preliminary discussion with staff and citizens at a Council work session—seems to mark a significant change to how Council manages new major issues. The consent agenda has traditionally been used for extremely minor items, like street closures for fairs, or for items already discussed by Council. But yesterday Council used the consent agenda to move three major new items directly towards public hearing and decision.

A request from Draheim at Council last night, on the protected tree ordinance, illustrated the difference in last night’s approach versus the traditional.

When Meadows asked if anyone wanted a discussion of the consent agenda, Draheim asked City Manager George Lahanas to be sure the tree protection ordinance be referred to the Commission on the Environment and the Historic District Commission so they could help clarify how this ordinance would work in practice. Altmann later suggested that Planning Commission could also consider the issue.

But Lahanas does not have to the power to formally refer this to those commissions; Council would have to do it, and Council did not elect to do so last night. (To do so, Council would have had to pull the item off the consent agenda and deal with it separately.)

That means the Historic District, Environment, and Planning Commissions will not necessarily be able to comment on the draft ordinance before the public hearing and potential decision by Council on December 1 (Council’s next formal, televised meeting). Council could still decide, on December 1, to hold off on a decision and formally refer the matter to the commissions, but usually once an item hits a public hearing, it doesn’t go back to boards and commission for review.

In the past, these commissions would typically have been consulted before a public hearing was scheduled. Their input would be obtained by Council and generally discussed at a work session by Council. Then the public hearing would be set, and the public would be put on alert that the matter was going to be decided on. By that point, Councilmembers in favor of passing whatever was before them would typically tell the public it had already been discussed at length, and they would move to a vote rather quickly, unmoved by public comments “late in the game.”

In an email discussion with the new Council earlier in the day yesterday, I noted surprise both that people not yet sworn in were putting items on the consent agenda (it appears Meadows put the rental nonconforming issue on, and Altmann put the tree protection issue on) and that the consent agenda was being used to move major items quickly.

In that email conversation, Draheim was concerned that our published report yesterday might have led people to believe there were decisions occurring on these major matters rather than simply public hearings being set and referrals occurring.

On email, Beier agreed with Draheim, adding, “I would argue that our old procedure of discussing items in work sessions before public hearings was confusing. The public often missed the most important discussions because they occurred in non-televised work sessions. Indeed, it was not uncommon for the previous Council to hold a public hearing that was largely devoid of Council debate, because the debate had already occurred in a work session.

During Council discussion of the consent agenda, Beier said she thought this new approach—of setting televised public hearings on major items before Council/public discussion occurs, rather than starting with discussions at non-televised work sessions—was better because citizens didn’t miss the major Council discussion or show up at the public hearing only to hear that Council had already discussed and essentially settled the matter.

Meadows essentially agreed with Beier, saying he planned to have major Council debates occur during televised sessions. At Council, Draheim said she also wants increased transparency, but doesn’t want to “give the false impression” that important business won’t be discussed at work sessions. She said she wants citizens to know that, and said she encourages them to come to work sessions.

Time will tell whether the approach to moving major issues through East Lansing government will be consistently different under this Council, and whether the public perceives it as an improved approach.

Later today, we’ll have up our weekly Council Capsule giving a synopsis of the whole meeting last night. If you want to watch the meeting for yourself, click here.

 

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