East Lansing Mayor Aaron Stephens is resigning from the City Council in order to pursue a master’s degree in public policy at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.
His resignation will become effective Aug. 11, 2021. That means he will likely be present for just one more meeting of Council, on Aug. 10.
Stephens made the announcement tonight at City Council just after 8 p.m. It was clear that his resignation did not come as surprising news to other City Council members or the City Manager, but his decision had not become public until tonight.
Jessy Gregg, who has been serving as Mayor Pro Tem (substitute mayor), will upon Stephens’ exit automatically rise to become Mayor of East Lansing.
Gregg reminded Stephens, just after his announcement, that she had threatened him with bodily harm if he ever quit and left her as mayor, the way Ruth Beier did to Stephens when she resigned almost exactly a year ago. Gregg joked she would be meeting Stephens outside City Hall for fisticuffs, but then said more seriously that she was grateful for and proud of him. Other Council members and the City Manager also praised him.
Gregg and the other three remaining Council members will now need to elect a new Mayor Pro Tem and appoint a fifth person to the City Council.
This means that the Council of five will for a time have only two representatives – Gregg and Lisa Babcock – who were actually elected by the voters of East Lansing. That will change when voters decide in November’s election who will hold the three appointees’ seats.
Stephens became Mayor not through election to that office by his fellow Council members but because he was Mayor Pro Tem when then-Mayor Ruth Beier suddenly resigned almost exactly one year ago, on July 14, 2020. Beier resigned because Stephens, Babcock, and Gregg voted to fire City Attorney Tom Yeadon. Immediately following Beier’s resignation, Mark Meadows also resigned from Council.
As Stephens had been elected by the Council to serve as Mayor Pro Tem, with Beier’s resignation he automatically rose to the Mayor’s chair. The remaining three members – Stephens, Gregg, and Babcock – then elected Gregg to be Mayor Pro Tem, took applications to fill the vacancies, and appointed Dana Watson and Ron Bacon, who are now both running for election in November.
Now, a process of appointment will happen again.
According to the City Charter, the Council must be fill a vacancy with an appointment within thirty days after the vacancy occurs. The Charter calls on the remaining Council members to appoint “a person who possess the qualifications required of Council members.”
City Council will have to decide how to handle the appointment. At tonight’s meeting, Gregg pressed for sending out a call for applications as soon as possible, similar to what Council chose to do last year.
City Attorney Laura Genovich, responding to a question from Gregg, said the Council could start on the process of appointment right now, so long as they complete the appointment by thirty days after Aug. 11. She said nothing in the Charter prevents them from starting immediately.
Stephens urged Council to choose someone who is not running for City Council and who has substantial government experience, given that they will serve for only a short time.
The new appointee will serve only until the next Council is seated, which is expected to happen shortly after the election on November 2, 2021.
Stephens’ announcement comes just one day after the City announced that it will return to in-person Council and commission meetings starting next month. He said tonight that, when he got word of being admitted to Harvard’s program in late spring, he had hoped to attend school virtually, but that since classes will now be held in-person, he has decided he must resign to start the program. He said that deferring start of his master’s degree is not possible given his personal financial situation.
Stephens’ tenure as Mayor has been significantly shaped by the pandemic. As MSU students partied during the warmer months of 2020, he visited bars and parties to distribute masks and educate young people about Covid-19 public health protocols. He also worked to strengthen town-gown relationships as year-round residents of East Lansing grew frustrated with student partying in residential neighborhoods.
Also under Stephens’ one year as mayor, City Manager George Lahanas’ contract was renewed for four years, although it was not up for renewal, and Lahanas was given a “golden parachute” in the new contract. Stephens said at the time that the move was necessary because of the leadership instability caused by the firing of the City Attorney and the resignations of Beier, Meadows, and Police Chief Larry Sparkes in quick succession.
While Stephens was Mayor, Council also voted 4-1 (with Gregg against) to award the City Attorney contract to Foster Swift. Of late, Genovich has been filling in for Mike Homier of that firm. Council is expected tonight to discuss negotiation of another contract with Foster Swift.
Stephens said tonight that he is particularly proud of being on Council during the major redevelopment of downtown and for the passing of an ordinance which will create an Independent Police Oversight Commission – an ordinance that is expected to formally pass at tonight’s meeting. He has also advocated for the reform of the City’s disorderly conduct code.
He also recently pushed through Ordinance 1500 on a 3-2 vote, saying it would protect vulnerable students. That ordinance restricts landlords in terms of how early they can show and rent housing units to prospective new tenants, but it will only take effect if both Meridian Township’s Board and the Lansing City Council pass similar legislation by Aug. 10.
Stephens’ personal text messages are currently at the center of a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit brought by attorney Mike Nichols who has represented Andrew Stephenson, an ELPD officer who was accused by two Black men of excessive use of force and who was exonerated by prosecutors. Nichols has been seeking to see texts between Stephens and his romantic partner, who is employed by the City in East Lansing’s 54B District Court.
When Stephens ran for Council in 2017 as an MSU undergraduate, he beat out incumbent Susan Woods. He said then that if he was elected, he would stay in East Lansing to serve the full four-year term. Now he will leave a few months short of that full term, and East Lansing will have had four different mayors in under two years – Meadows, Beier, Stephens, and Gregg.