It’s painful that Jim Cuddeback, the founder of Public Response, is not alive to read the news that real estate developer Scott Chappelle has been indicted for tax and bank fraud. When it was impossible for citizen watchdogs to convince any local news organization to report the truth about Chappelle’s history, Public Response provided the space to educate the community.
Eliot Singer, above all, worked doggedly to track and expose what was really going on with the developer with whom the City was looking to partner in the biggest public-private real estate deal ever to hit East Lansing. I expect that if we could see the origins of the federal indictment, we would find Eliot’s research.
But about that, even Eliot would say – who knows? There were so many people who knew what was really going on. And it never seemed to matter.
Again and again, citizens tried to get City Council, City staff, and the DDA to look at what we’d found. Again and again, we were treated as if we were naïve, stupid, whiny, obsessive NIMBYs.
Fortunately, this lousy treatment of intelligent citizens caused so many important alliances to form. East Lansing Citizens Concerned came together. I met Ann Nichols, my neighborhood president, and we teamed up. Public Response became the place to go for facts that mattered.
Eventually, the whole thing led to the founding of East Lansing Info – an attempt to provide nonpartisan factual news that might wake up the taxpayers and voters of East Lansing to factual reality. ELi made it possible for us to keep bringing stories that originated on Public Response, like the retaining wall case brought by Phil Bellfy, in which the Department of Justice found significant wrongdoing.
I have to wonder what the enablers of Chappelle are thinking today. My experience with them suggests they have always believed they took action at just the right time.
But the truth is that if City leaders had taken us all seriously, and stopped averting their eyes from documentated research, they might have saved the City several years of blight and millions of dollars.
What troubles me is not even so much that history, but the way it has been repeated since. I’m not suggesting we will see more developers here indicted. There’s little reason to think they have records that would attract the feds.
But the Center City deal had so many red flags for East Lansing’s best interests – you can see our full reporting here. Not too long after that came the Royal Vlahakis deal, which, again, did not have issues that would pique the interest of the feds, but which, well, omg.
Time and again, the attitude has been that what citizens have found doesn’t matter to the equation, because we aren’t City staff, appointed to commissions, or developers.
But it feels lately like things have changed in East Lansing, for the better. Maybe that’s partly because those of us still doing public service research and reporting do it better than we used to? Maybe it’s because the public elected to office people who take facts more seriously?
There is still work that needs to be done for this City to be adequately led and advised. We can’t stop being vigilant, doing good research, demanding transparency, and asking more of our government. This feels especially important as we enter a new phase of examining and reforming the way our City treats African Americans.
But with this indictment, maybe there’s some hope that City officials will stop averting their eyes to what we find, and start realizing facts can save us.
My thanks to Matt Kazmierski for carrying on Jim’s work, and giving me a place where I can say these things. My thanks to Eliot Singer for sharing his incredible work with ELi’s reporters and readers. My thanks to Ann Nichols and Chris Root for being my colleagues in these years of work. Today, it feels like government still works sometimes. But mostly what I know is that good people doing hard research and dogged tracking can sometimes change things for the better.