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East Lansing City Council delays 'Sanctuary City' vote, hears review of policing practices

East Lansing Human Rights Commission member Thasin Sardar encourages the City Council to support the "Sanctuary City" resolution.
Arjun Thakkar
East Lansing Human Rights Commission member Thasin Sardar encourages the City Council to support the "Sanctuary City" resolution.

The East Lansing City Council delayed a vote Tuesday on a resolution that would have designated the municipality as a “Sanctuary City” over federal funding concerns. The council also heard findings from an independent firm's review of the city's policing practices.

The immigration measure came after a push from the city's Human Rights Commission. If approved, it would prohibit East Lansing police from cooperating with federal agencies to target undocumented immigrants.

The city previously approved a “safe haven” designation in 2017 in response to former President Donald Trump’s threats towards undocumented immigrants.

Mayor Pro Tem Jessy Gregg said the issue was one of the reasons she got into public service. She urged members to adopt the resolution.

"When we see laws that are unjust, or policies that are unjust, it is our duty to protest them in any way that we can, and one of the ways that this body can is by passing resolutions,” Gregg said.

Advocates for the resolution, including multiple Michigan State University students, said the designation would enhance safety for undocumented immigrants in the city. Critics said the city would be disobeying the law and sending the wrong message to the community.

The primary effect of the designation would be preventing the city's law enforcement from working with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Officials with the police department said the resolution would not affect how officers conduct their operations.

The resolution does provide an exception for cases with criminal activity or protecting public safety.

Other councilmembers expressed concerns about a future presidential administration threatening to withhold federal funds over the designation. The Trump administration made this threat in 2017, which likely deterred the city from becoming a "Sanctuary City."

While all members present expressed support for the resolution, the council agreed to delay voting until after its attorney could provide a written opinion explaining the "legal ramifications" of the designation and evaluate the potential funding impact.

Earlier in the meeting, the council heard from an independent firm that said East Lansing’s police department needs to better track use-of-force incidents and update its system for investigating internal complaints.

The city contracted the firm CNA earlier this year to review its policing practices. The nonprofit surveyed police department staff and held a listening session with residents.

CNA released a final report that included nearly 100 recommendations. The recommendations center around strengthening internal policies and improving the department's relationship with the community.

The firm found East Lansing community members see a disconnect between the police department, the city council and the city's Independent Police Oversight Commission.

Chris Root is a member of the oversight commission. She asked the council during the meeting to adopt the recommended measures to address racial disparities in policing.

"We mustn't get lost in the numbers and statistical complexities and forget the impacts on real people who experience real encounters with police," Root said. "We have known for years from listening to African Americans in our community and looking at ELPD data that Black people have been disproportionately policed.”

The council also took a step towards refinancing a thirteen-year-old property development bond.

Following a heated discussion that lasted nearly an hour and a half, the council passed a resolution authorizing East Lansing's Mayor or Mayor Pro Tem to begin refinancing the bond of about $5 million in value. It represents debt that has been accruing since 2009, when the city purchased properties on Evergreen Avenue for a development project.

Multiple proposals with developers fell through, and the city has already refinanced this bond twice in the past. The Downtown Development Authority owes around $5 million for the bond, close to its starting amount. And while the city has paid close to $2 million in interest and fees for the bond, it really hasn’t paid down the principal on the debt.

Refinancing the bond would change the interest from a variable rate to a fixed one. The city’s financial advisors, who are only paid when a new bond is approved, said locking in a interest rate based on the current market could save the city money.

City Manager George Lahanas said the move could improve the city’s financial standing.

“I don't think we should necessarily run from one opportunity we have to be able to have some growth and be able to have some additional revenue,” Lahanas said.

Councilmember Lisa Babcock opposed the authorization. She said the council should focus on reducing the principal debt of the Downtown Development Authority.

“I am really distressed by the fact that we continue to carry this debt, we continue to refinance this debt,” Babcock said. "And yet we're told that it's the financially wise thing to do to stay in debt forever."

The vote was 3-1, with Babcock being the only member to vote against the authorization. Mayor Ron Bacon was not present at the meeting.

Arjun Thakkar is WKAR's politics and civics reporter.
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