Council Capsule: November 24, 2015

Thursday, November 26, 2015, 1:43 pm
Alice Dreger

Image of City Council courtesy City of East Lansing.

Each week, ELi brings you a summary of what happened at City Council. Our “Council Capsule” allows you to stay on top of what’s happening in our local government.

All present: Mayor Mark Meadows, Mayor Pro Tem Ruth Beier, Councilmembers Erik Altmann, Shanna Draheim, Susan Woods.

Syrian refugees: During his report to Council, City Manager George Lahanas told Council that there had been a couple of requests received from organizations and individuals seeking to have the City encourage the State to accept Syrian refugees. He asked Council if staff should draft a letter for Council or the mayor to sign indicating that we are a welcoming community.

Beier asked whether this would be the City urging the State to be welcoming, or whether it would be the City stating specifically that East Lansing is welcoming. Lahanas suggested it could be a sort of combination—encouraging the State while saying on the City website that the City is welcoming. Meadows suggested it be a formal resolution. A formal resolution is expected to be considered and passed at next Tuesday’s meeting.

On this topic, Meadows apologized to his fellow Councilmembers that, without consulting with them, he wrote a long opinion on the matter and made it public, and that that was then picked up in the local news. He said he felt he got “a little ahead” of Council on this, and that the determination has to be made by Council, as it will be next week.

Community solar project for Burcham Park: Council was presented with a draft lease agreement between the City of East Lansing and Patriot Solar Garden East Lansing LLC for community solar project at Burcham Park. (See staff memo.) The plan is to build a solar array at the brownfield site called Burcham Park, at the southwest corner of Park Lake Road and Burcham Road, and to have businesses and homeowners literally buy into the solar project by leasing panels that contribute to their energy use. We have a separate report on that story.

Ceramics studio renovation: Staff asked Council to authorize the City Manager to sign an agreement to accept a grant from the Michigan Council for the Arts and Cultural Affairs (MCACA) in the amount of $38,000 to renovate an existing room at East Lansing Hannah Community Center (ELHCC) to a Ceramics Studio. This is designed to replace the studio lost in the closing of the Bailey Community Center. Council unanimously approved the authorization. [Update: Read more in our special report from Michael Teager.]

City withdraws from the Lansing Regional Chamber of Commerce (LRCC): In response to the LRCC’s attack ads on Altmann during the election, Council passed a resolution to withdraw the City of East Lansing’s membership from the Chamber. Read more in our earlier report.

Tree protection: During Councilmember reports, Draheim said that at next week’s Council meeting, when the proposed tree protection ordinance is the subject of a public hearing, she is going to move to formally refer the matter for review by the Commission on the Environment. She said they have been encouraged to review it but will not have had time to meet as a group before the public hearing at Council next week. City Manager George Lahanas asked staff Megan Clark if she had received any feedback from the Environment commissioners and Clark said it had only been questions of clarification so far.

Meadows said that there had been reports of some landlords cutting down old-growth trees that day (November 24) in the Oakwood neighborhood on Forest Street. He said he wasn’t sure if they were diseased, but found it “odd that it occurred in that particular area” and wondered if it was “in anticipation of the ordinance.”

$2 million contract related to water recovery system upgrade: At the very end of this three-and-a-half hour meeting, City Manager George Lahanas, in his Manager’s report, asked Council to approve a contract for about $2 million related to the upgrade of the water resource recovery facility (previously known as the waste water treatment plant). Director of Public Works Scott House and Finance Director Mary Haskell explained that this is a very big, very expensive project ultimately on the order of $60-$70 million and that there are many financial steps along the way. (The costs are being shared with MSU and Meridian Township, because they are the other major consumers of the facility’s services.)

House said that in terms of the facility, “we are driving a very old car” and “we are having weird things go wrong with it.” He said it was “imperative” that the renovations be completed as soon as possible. Haskell said that the City is in the position of approving contracts before intents to bond can go out. She talked about there being a degree of uncertainty in terms of the debt service payments.

Meadows asked about the recent “jump” in water and sewer rates to citizens, and Haskell said this related to the start of the renovation project. She said “we are playing catch up.” Meadows said he wanted people to understand why their rates are going up. Woods said she would prefer that the rates in Meridian be higher than ours so that people will be inclined to move to East Lansing. Council and staff discussed the challenge of trying to fix a very old infrastructure in a time of economic hardship in terms of the City’s finances.

The contract is on the consent agenda for next Tuesday’s Council meeting, which means it is expected to be approved without further discussion. (Because this contract discussion was added to the end of this week’s Council meeting without listing on the agenda, we are unable to provide a link to relevant materials.)

City signs “Memorandum of Understanding” with CATA on form-based code grant: Director of Planning Tim Dempsey explained that CATA wants East Lansing to sign onto a grant (also including Lansing and Meridian Township) designed to create form-based code for the commercial area along the Michigan Avenue corridor. Eventually CATA hopes to build a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) from the Capitol to the Meridian Mall, and the idea of this grant is to hire consultants to develop a plan for what styles will be used in commercial and public development along the route.

A form-based code is more than a recommended design; it is a type of zoning regulation that requires that buildings in a particular region follow a particular style. Dempsey said the project “could be very fruitful” for East Lansing. He said it could include developing plans for Grand River east of Hagadorn, in the East Village area (near Bogue Street), and in the Delta Triangle (the triangle formed by the split of Grand River Avenue and Michigan Avenue in East Lansing).

Draheim suggested it would make sense for the consultant on this project to be the same as whomever helps us with the comprehensive plan. Dempsey said the hope was to “dovetail” these projects to make them as “seamless” as possible. In response to comments from Altmann, Dempsey also said the plan was to hire a consultant who had experience not only in form-based code design but in the follow-up in terms of what works well and what doesn’t.

Council voted unanimously to sign the Memorandum of Understanding with CATA. (You can read the staff memo.)

Citizen comments: Ralph Monsma, of Red Leaf Lane in the Pinecrest Neighborhood, presented a document that a group of concerned citizens (including those affiliated with East Lansing Citizens Concerned) put together naming key issues Council should consider. They asked for focused attention to be paid to the city budget and debt, our unfunded pension liability, the master plan and comprehensive planning, the City’s physical infrastructure, economic development, and more. The document from the citizens’ group also asked for maximizing tax income from new development and limiting subsidies to developers. Monsma also asked for all Council meetings to be videotaped to make them more accessible to the public, and also asked that previous material be accessible on the City’s website so that citizens don’t have to dig around or bother staff to find what should be relatively easy to find. (In response, Council and City Manager George Lahanas discussed how to make old Council agendas and attachments accessible.) He also suggested that, if Council is going to deal with very large developments, that appropriate money be spent on hiring competent consultants to review the financial risk and details.

Chris Root, of Sunset Lane in the Oakwood neighborhood, also asked for more accessibility on the City website of documents from past meetings and staff activity. She suggested using optical scanning software to make the materials searchable. She also supported videotaping and televising all Council meetings, and she said that while the internet-based live-streaming generally works okay, the televised broadcast often has skips or bad audio. She said it is important “for citizens to have opportunity to have well informed input when it has a chance of impacting your decision-making.” She said if it happens too early in the process, it often is not informed input. If it happens too late, it may have no impact on the Council decision, because Councilmembers may have already made up their minds. Meadows responded by saying she had “identified the conundrum” of public participation. He said that it was important to have flexibility but to also have a process people can rely on to be clear.

Alice Dreger, of Sunset Lane in the Oakwood neighborhood (i.e., me), said that it seemed like Council is aware that citizens have been frustrated about feeling like they are asked to comment on issues but are then just used as window-dressing to say the public was consulted. An example is the rental nonconforming discussion group, wherein landlords and neighborhood reps were convened, met and worked for many hours, but then nothing happened. Even when the report was brought forward from the staff, it did not include the written, submitted feedback provided by landlords and the neighborhood reps for Council to see. (The rental nonconforming issue was dealt with later in the meeting, as noted.)

Council operating approach changing: A lot of the meeting was spent discussing how Council is going to operate in terms of “regular sessions” versus “work sessions,” recordings and broadcast, board and commission liaison assignments, and so on. We’ll be bringing you a separate report on this. [Update: see the report here.]

Nonconforming rental issue: Council and staff discussed reconvening the rental nonconforming steering committee, or convening a smaller group of about seven people with special expertise to discuss the issue. A concern is that East Lansing landlords are trying to override the City’s regulation of this zoning issue via State-level legislation (read more). Meadows said that we are “in danger” of the State taking over this and other issues, so he thought it important to take action.

Woods suggested letting the people on the original committee decide who should be on the subcommittee. Beier said she didn’t think that was a reasonable approach. Meadows said Council should decide and that there should be a “very public process” on this issue.

Dempsey noted that a draft ordinance on the issue had been referred out for review to the Planning Commission, Housing Commission, and the University Student Commission, and he asked how this should be integrated with the committee’s process. Meadows said it should play out in terms of seeing what the various groups think we should do next, if anything. Draheim said it made sense to instruct all boards and commissions to “be creative” in terms of approaching issues put before them. Meadows agreed.

Parking meters: Altmann asked Lahanas about parking meters being installed along Valley Court, and asked why the City is installing a central pay station rather than individualized “smart” meters for each spot. Director of Planning Tim Dempsey said the pay stations are much more cost effective, and that they were therefore going to pilot the use at Valley Court. Dempsey said that the parking system continues to face financial challenges. Altmann said he preferred not to have to walk to a pay station.

Other Councilmember reports: Beier said that with regard to football home games and “disturbances,” Council needs to be proactive in encouraging people to be safe and to make sure “nothing is burned down.” Woods said that the 18th annual East Lansing Film Festival was a great success and that there will be another one next year.

According to City staff, due to a problem with the recording system, there is no recording of this week’s Council.

Reminder: There are three public hearings at Council next Tuesday, including on a proposed ethics ordinance (whereby Councilmembers would have to do real-time disclosure of campaign finance contributions), the proposed tree protection ordinance, and a proposed “dangerous buildings” ordinance (which would allow the City to demolish dangerous vacant properties). Read more.

Citizens can speak at or write to City Council on any issue, including those not on the agenda. Email can be sent to Council by writing to