Failure to Reform // Eliot Singer

I thought it might be useful to provide some insights as to what reformers hoped to accomplish at the time of the 2015 Council election.

The context that was finally conducive to reform was: City Center II, St. Anne’s Lofts, and other public-private development fiascos; “retaining-wall-gate”; neglect of neighborhoods in favor of the downtown development agenda; the growing fiscal crisis, brought on by unfunded debt for big projects, tax diversion to development authorities, and legacy costs; and lack of accountability in city hall. Getting rid of over-the-top-politically-ambitious, financially-illiterate, developer-friendly, Nathan Triplett, was a top priority. So was getting rid of the city attorney, for a long list of reasons that involved ethical and competence concerns, as well as the broader problem of “waterboarding isn’t torture” government attorneys, who serve the interest of their government masters not the rule of law or the public good.

Another priority was to institute a strong set of rules for public-private development, or complete effective neutering of development authorities (reducing them to paying existing bills)—rules such as: no crooks or deadbeats, proving public purpose is commensurate with cost of tax diversion, requiring public disclosure of developer’s pro-forma, requiring comparison of costs and revenue with sprawl development, etc. There is no doubt, if the public were able to vote on reforms (or elimination, including elimination of MEDC), these would win overwhelmingly, and if bonds for parking structures and the like were put to a debt-millage vote, they would lose decisively.

That Triplett was defeated, despite something like $50,000 in outside money and support of both the Democratic Party establishment and the Chamber of Commerce, was indicative of the desire for reform. What reformers had hoped for was to elect Altman and Steve Ross, to join Ruth Beier, as a reform trio. When it became clear Ross was not up to running a vigorous campaign, the hope was that Meadows would really take on the role of an elder statesman, who had learned his lesson when he lost for judge, though frankly this hope depended on Beier and Altman holding his feet to the fire.

It didn’t happen. It seems clear Meadows was back to his old self even before the 2015 election, since the private sales that preceded the Lot 1 project had already taken place. I have no personal insights, but it quickly appeared after the 2015 election (starting with keeping Yeadon) that Altman and Beier had decided to support Meadows, instead of pushing him in the direction of reform. I can only say that most of the reform-activists of the time have either moved away from East Lansing, become significantly slowed by age and ill-health, or decided to focus their activist energies on more important issues.

– Eliot Singer

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