By Lucas Day
2023 comes to a close in a few short days and what a year it has been in the City of East Lansing and for the ELi team.
With new faces in key city positions, major changes in East Lansing schools and a hyper-competitive City Council race, a lot has changed over the last year. To recap those changes, here is ELi’s coverage on the top developments and events in 2023.
The departure of longtime City Manager George Lahanas and the search for his replacement rang in 2023.
The year kicked off with a big change, as former City Manager George Lahanas and the city reached a separation agreement after a decade on the job. At the same Jan. 17 meeting, former Fire Chief Randy Talifarro was appointed to take over as interim city manager.
Talifarro took over the city’s top role in February and remained in the position for more than six months. He served as city manager for so long because of a drawn out search process that ended Aug. 13 with Council deciding to hire former Saginaw County Controller Robert Belleman.
The search for a new city manager was not without its bumps. After five finalists were selected by the city and the search firm, Michigan Municipal League, one candidate dropped out. Then the day of Council’s vote, it was announced another candidate had dropped out, days after ELi reported troubling details about his past. Belleman himself was removed from his last position in Saginaw County.
Council opted to vote for Belleman 3-2 over Tim Dempsey, who was serving as interim director of planning, building and development at the time, a position he had previously held without the interim status. Dempsey, who was a favorite among members of the public who spoke during the process, left the city ranks in late October.
Despite Mayor Pro Tem Jessy Gregg floating a way Council could reverse its decision on Belleman, Council eventually reached a contract agreement with him in September and he has since taken the reins to the city.
East Lansing experiences one of the city’s greatest tragedies with a mass shooting at Michigan State University.
A mass shooting at Michigan State University (MSU) devastated the community, as the shooter killed three students and injured five others before taking his own life. ELi posted its first report not long after 8:15 p.m. when the first calls came in that police were responding to a shooting in Berkey Hall. Reporters continued long into the evening and early morning providing updates and dispelling rumors.
The day after the shooting, ELi spoke with a pair of MSU students who explained what the tragedy looked like from their perspective living on campus. During the hours-long manhunt, students did not know what was happening or if they were in harm's way the entire night. It quickly became apparent the tragedy was a mass-trauma event.
The community banded together after the tragedy. Counseling was offered at the Hannah Community Center, thousands went to a vigil to remember those lost and large demonstrations calling for gun control were held at the Capitol.
The Feb. 13 shooting will never be forgotten in the city. Later in the year, City Council passed a resolution to remember the tragedy at the first meeting every February going forward. East Lansing Public Schools (ELPS) announced in December that classes will be canceled Feb. 13, 2024, for staff, students and family to honor the first anniversary of the tragedy.
Scary incident at East Lansing schools leads to change.
A large fight broke out in the high school parking lot after a basketball game in early January. A student dropped a gun in front of a teacher before recovering it and quickly leaving school property. This wasn’t the first violent incident at the school. Fights had been breaking out for months, but the presence of a weapon created a sense of urgency for parents, students and teachers to create change.
At an ELPS Board of Education meeting shortly after the incident, stakeholders gathered to give emotional testimony about a lack of accountability for students who misbehave and the fear many students felt. Despite the emotional nature of the meeting, recently-elected Board President Kath Edsall told the audience “saying ‘I’m scared’ is not helpful,” and requested more concrete ideas.
The next meeting, which was held in the high school auditorium due to high attendance, saw hours of emotional testimony from stakeholders about the violence and safety concerns before Edsall offered a tearful apology and resigned from her post as president, while retaining her slot on the board. At that same meeting, the board and district administrators announced a new safety plan was in the works.
The issues in the schools drew widespread attention from the community. East Lansing Mayor Ron Bacon held a listening session at the Hannah Community Center. East Lansing parents formed the East Lansing Parents Advocacy Team (ELPAT) that regularly meets with school administration. The school’s issues even drew attention from a MSU professor and school safety expert, who was interviewed by ELi.
The school has since given several updates on progress for its safety plan and the effectiveness of changes will undoubtedly remain a topic to monitor. The school board has also approved a bond proposal to enhance security.
The school safety discussion has happened with the backdrop of major leadership changes within the school district. In March, ELi reported that first-year high school principal Shannon Mayfield resigned after it was discovered he had provided “fraudulent” evidence of a doctorate degree. Ashley Schwarzbek, who had previously served as an associate principal, stepped in as acting principal in February and was officially named principal in May.
The Board of Education also saw a tremendous amount of turnover in the last year. Three of the board’s seven members were appointed this year following resignations. Gary Holbrook replaced Amanda Cormier, Chris Martin took over for Debbie Walton and J. Estrella Torrez filled in after Monica Fink resigned.
Majority of the City Council is overhauled after a competitive election.
Eight candidates were vying for three slots on City Council in the Nov. 7 election. Incumbents Bacon and Gregg opted not to run for reelection and the third seat was held by Councilmember Noel Garcia (who was appointed in January). In the end, a couple of familiar faces, Mark Meadows and Erik Altmann, were elected after previously serving on Council. The third winning candidate, Kerry Ebersole Singh, ran well ahead of the field.
Part of Singh’s success was due to a dominant fundraising campaign. Pre-election finance reports showed Singh had raised more than $56,000, which eclipses the total raised by any Council candidate ELi has reported on. The reports also revealed the major donors in the city elections and how the eight candidates spent their funds.
An analysis conducted by ELi showed that this election cycle saw a strong turnout, despite barely any votes coming in from student precincts. The analysis also tracked votes cast for Meadows and Altmann compared to their previous runs and broke down results by neighborhood.
ELi’s election coverage started well before election day. We provided a pair of election guides: One that covered Council elections, complete with profiles on all eight candidates, and a guide that broke down the three ballot initiatives decided on by voters. We also reported on an election forum and asked candidates to provide their stances on some of the topics that matter most to voters, like potential charter amendments, staff retention and housing.
Staff shortages, alleged charter violations and an independent investigation raise concerns in city hall.
Staff shortages within the city ranks dominated discourse throughout the year, as many key employees quit their jobs. ELi often broke the news about departures and their impact to the community.
“I am finding out [about departures] through ELi,” Councilmember Dana Watson said at the March 14 City Council meeting.
An anonymous complaint emerged in mid-April that claimed overreach by Bacon was partially responsible for the exodus of employees. Bacon and Talifarro, who was serving as interim city manager, said they believed the complaint was racially motivated.
ELi published a lengthy report that included off-the-record interviews with several former employees that substantiated much of what was in the complaint. The ELi investigation also found instances where Bacon may have violated the city charter.
However, an independent investigator hired by the city did not find charter violations. On Nov. 2, just days before the Nov. 7 City Council election, Council held a special meeting that was not recorded or publicly announced. The meeting was added to the city calendar the day before it was held. The meeting agenda showed it was held almost entirely in closed session and that investigator Randall Secontine found assertions of charter violations to be without merit.
How did Secontine come to that conclusion? ELi does not yet know. The agenda item said the contents of the investigation will be sealed by attorney client privilege.
While the new Council has not referenced the investigation, the special meeting where findings were accepted has come up in discussion. At the Nov. 14 Council meeting, where new members were sworn-in, Meadows requested an amendment to the agenda that the minutes to the special meeting not be approved.
“There were four members of Council who were not present at this special meeting,” Meadows said, referencing the three newly-elected members and Councilmember George Brookover, who was absent. “I would like an opportunity, personally, to meet with the city manager, which I’m doing tomorrow, to get a better feel for what happened there. I feel uncomfortable approving minutes where I was not involved.”
At Council’s next meeting, Nov. 28, the special meeting minutes were again briefly alluded to. At the start of the meeting, Meadows said he believed the special meeting minutes were supposed to be on the agenda to be approved. Now-Mayor Brookover responded vaguely.
“No, I’m deferring those to a future date,” Brookover said.
The meeting minutes have not been approved yet. It is unclear why.
Housing and other developments in downtown East Lansing.
There was movement on a couple of major housing proposals downtown, though no new structures have been erected yet.
The proposal for workforce housing at 530 Albert Avenue was met by opposition from members of the public who wanted to preserve the surface parking spaces in the Bailey Street Parking Lot where the project would be built. Ultimately, Council voted 3-2 against approving the project, but Council members said the area will likely not remain parking forever. Both Mayor Ron Bacon and Councilmember George Brookover reminded those against the development that just because the vote went their way this time, it might not in the future.
“Be careful what you ask for,” Bacon said.
While the project looked dead in the water after Council voted it down, recently ELi learned developers have been working with business owners and members of the public who voiced dissent to find a plan that works for everyone. It now appears that American Community Developers (ACD) will be rolling out a new proposal that includes more parking spaces for public use.
Another project, which will add affordable housing downtown if it is completed, saw movement. Initially developer DRW-Convexity proposed a three-part project, which included The Graduate Hotel, expensive apartment units in The Abbot and an affordable apartment complex, referred to as “Building C.”
While The Abbot and The Graduate have both been completed and are operating downtown, the affordable apartments have not come to fruition. In July, City Council voted to allow DRW-Convexity to shift the affordable housing project over to PK Companies, which is more experienced working with affordable housing.
The MSUFCU new office building downtown opened this year. After construction on the seven-story building started in 2021, the branch held its grand opening in July. MSUFCU emphasized a theme of “Strength in Roots” at the opening, as the credit union company has operated in East Lansing for more than 85 years.
One area downtown that has not been developed in a way many residents and city officials had hoped is the Evergreen Avenue lot. For more than three years, developers River Caddis have pitched projects for the space, but in July the company’s exclusive redevelopment agreement with the city expired. The city will now accept new proposals for redevelopment.
We got to know East Lansing’s faith community.
At ELi, we pride ourselves on breaking down complicated city issues and covering meetings, but we look to do more. We also hope to help residents get to know their neighbors better. This year, we learned a lot about the East Lansing faith community.
Following the MSU shooting, churches stepped up to serve as a place for residents to heal. In the wake of the tragedy, churches served as a community space that welcomed people of all faiths.
This summer, we reported on a program where some local churches have committed to making reparations to help Black residents overcome hurdles presented by systemic racism. The donations will help pay for education scholarships, business startups and home ownership for people of color.
ELi also highlighted a film created by two former MacDonald Middle School students, one of whom is now an MSU professor. The film tells the story of a U.S. Muslim hero who lost his life assisting others during the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in New York City.
East Lansing faith leaders have also been vocal since the Israel-Hamas conflict broke out in October. Religious leaders have reaffirmed strong interfaith friendships in the city, while expressing concerns about potential violence to members of local faith groups.
To close out the year, ELi brought a special report that included insights from nine local clergy about church attendance. As church attendance declines nationwide, clergy reported back on the trends they are seeing and how they have adapted to generational changes.
The stories and issues highlighted here are just a piece of ELi's coverage through 2023. We’ve also brought stories about businesses - new and old - in East Lansing, stories of people in the city and coverage of other city meetings, including the East Lansing Public Library (ELPL), Parks and Recreation, Planning Commission, and more. And now we look ahead to 2024.
With ELi in the final week of its annual campaign, we want to remind you that East Lansing is the only municipality in our region with the kind of independent coverage of local government that ELi provides. If you value this nonprofit news service, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution TODAY. Learn more about our Annual Campaign here, and find all your donation options here. Got a question? Write to us.