Applications for the two vacant seats on East Lansing City Council are now open as a shorthanded Council set the timeline for appointing new members during a meeting Monday evening. The Council members also discussed the process for hiring new legal representation when the contract with the City Attorney ends in over two months.
Two seats on Council opened on July 14 when former mayor Ruth Beier and Mark Meadows abruptly resigned after a 3-2 vote to terminate the City Attorney contract on October 1.
By City Charter, Council has 30 days from the resignation to appoint a new member.
And because of the rapid timeframe to make a decision normally bestowed to voters — and the necessity of that decision with pressing matters like COVID-19 and Michigan State University students returning — the goal is to have both seats filled by the Council’s August 11 meeting.
Before deciding the details about how to select two new members, the Council elected Jessy Gregg as the new mayor pro tem. Aaron Stephens automatically became mayor following the July 14 resignation of Ruth Beier. This left the mayor pro tem position vacant.
The Council decided on a short, written application for people wanting to join the Council, followed by 25-minute online interviews during special meetings of Council.
Here is the current procedure and timeline of the application process, as decided at Monday’s special meeting.
- July 21: Application period opens (The City’s press release this morning includes a link to the online application.)
- July 27: At 5 p.m. on Monday, the application period will close. City Staff will then share the applications with Council.
- July 29: At a Wednesday evening meeting — scheduled for 7 p.m. — the Council will finalize questions for the public interviews, which will then be posted for candidates to see. They will also hear from the public during this meeting.
- July 30 and 31: Council will hold public interviews, via Zoom, starting at 5 p.m. on Thursday, July 30 and resuming at 9 a.m. the next day, Friday, July 31. A public comment period will come at the end of each meeting.
- August 1: A 10 a.m. meeting is scheduled for Saturday following the interviews for the Council to decide who to appoint if interviews are done. If not, Saturday will be used for more interviews. There will be a time for public comment at this meeting.
- August 3 (TBD): A Monday evening meeting to finally deliberate and vote on the two appointees, if a decision is not reached on Saturday.
The schedule, approved unanimously by Mayor Aaron Stephens, acting Mayor Pro-Tem Jessy Gregg and Lisa Babcock, is intended to be as public as possible but also as quick as is reasonable.
Stephens said that, if possible, he’d like to interview all applicants. While Gregg and Babcock agreed, Gregg raised the possibility that there will be too many applicants for all them to be interviewed.
City Manager George Lahanas noted that Council requires a large time commitment, which people will need to take into account when deciding whether to apply.
The only point there was not almost immediate agreement on was how soon after the interviews to make the decision.
Gregg wanted it to be in the same meeting after the final interview to not give any applicants time to lobby their case outside of interviews. Babcock agreed to the merit of Gregg’s point, but also pointed out how the first and last interview will stand out, but the middle can become muddled, especially after two to three days of interviews.
Stephens had originally pushed for a separate meeting the week of August 3 as a “listening session” for Council to hear from the public on the candidates.
The Council decided on a more compact schedule, ending on August 3. They realized that deciding on the schedule of interviews was difficult without knowing how many people will apply. Council will get this information before their Wednesday, July 29 meeting.
Filling the two seats is critical, not just in terms of dealing with major upcoming matters, but to get anything done at all. Per the City Charter, Council must have three members present to reach a quorum and do any business.
Lahanas pointed out that, were anything to happen to one of the current Council members before others are appointed, the Charter provides no way for Council to act on the City’s business.
Furthermore, three votes must be cast for any business to pass. As long as there are only three members on the City Council, all votes must be unanimous.
“Bringing in fresh perspectives” to Council
The two eligibility requirements to be on the East Lansing City Council are 1) residing in East Lansing and 2) being registered to vote.
After that, the City Charter reads that the remaining members of the City Council “appoint a person who possesses the qualifications required of Council members to serve.”
The three members of Council repeatedly encouraged people to apply and said they took very seriously that they will be making a decision that is normally made by the City’s voters.
They have said publicly and to ELi that their goal is not to appoint people who are ideologically similar, but to diversify the Council — in both appearance and, more importantly, thought.
There are the diverse characteristics like race or ethnicity, gender, and sexual identity.
Also, Babcock said that someone with a physical disability or small children might find running a full-scale campaign difficult.
“This community is engaged, committed, ready to participate,” Babcock told ELi on Friday. She continued, “I would like to see diversity, I would like to see this be an opportunity for folks who, for one reason or another, feel that they can’t or won’t run a traditional door-knocking campaign.”
Stephens agreed that Babcock’s point is “apt.” He also hopes that someone with institutional knowledge joins the Council. When Beier and Meadows resigned, Stephens became the longest tenured Council member. He was elected in 2017.
To fill that need, someone who has experience on commissions or boards or has previously served elsewhere in the City of East Lansing would be of value. It also means they’d likely need less time to get familiar with their new job.
“Bringing in fresh perspectives and then having institutional knowledge of how the City runs and operates,” Stephens told ELi on Sunday. “Because truthfully, that is going to be really important. Because you need to have someone that’s willing to work within that system because we really do need to hit the ground running.”
The final point every member of Council has made since the resignations of Beier and Meadows a week ago is that they don’t want to appoint two people to just vote “yes” with them all the time.
Beier didn’t like disagreeing in public, Gregg told ELi, and in his resignation speech, Meadows said he always tried to have things passed unanimously.
That, Gregg said, is not good government and not what the people should want. Debate, discussion and disagreement are how to reach the best solution, Gregg said, not seeking a unanimous decision.
The wheels are also turning on a new City Attorney
Following last week’s 3-2 vote, Tom Yeadon of McGinty, Hitch, Person, Yeadon & Anderson, will no longer be the City of East Lansing’s legal counsel come October 1.
In order to find a new firm, the City is sending out a Request for Qualifications/Proposal (RFQ/P) to several firms specializing in municipal law — serving as legal counsel to cities and towns — and making it publicly available via a press release.
The contract length being offered is one year, with an option for renewal, to grant flexibility going forward while balancing the security a firm would want in the job to take it.
A return date on the RFQ/P has been set for August 21 with interviews to follow. This will allow four weeks for a firm to apply and five weeks for Council to interview and hire a firm and that firm to get acclimated. It will also mean the two new members of Council will help decide.