Updated: Wednesday, Oct. 13 at 7:19 p.m.
Even with questions that mostly centered on issues impacting Michigan State University students, Monday night’s East Lansing City Council candidate forum highlighted some notable differences of opinion — and about more than just student-centric matters — among the seven people running for the three open seats.
Differences showed up on issues like the City’s rental overlay districts, legislation aimed at limiting when landlords can show and sign leases for apartments, how to manage the Albert EL Fresco social space, and diversity, equity, and inclusion in the City.
The forum, hosted by the Associated Students of MSU (ASMSU), was divided into two portions: one for the two candidates running for a single two-year seat and another for the five candidates vying to fill the two open four-year seats.
All seven candidates are running for City Council for the first time. The candidates running for the two-year term are Ron Bacon (incumbent; appointed in August 2020) and Mikey Manuel. The candidates running for the four-year terms are Daniel Bollman, George Brookover, Adam DeLay, Chuck Grigsby, and Dana Watson (incumbent, also appointed in August 2020).
The respective cadres of candidates were asked the same set of six questions that mainly focused on issues affecting students in the City of East Lansing — strategies to keep MSU graduates in the area, plans to include student voices in the City government, and candidates’ stances on Ordinance 1500, a dead-before-it-started City law to alter the rental timeline for students, for example.
Candidates were limited to 90 seconds for their responses. Because it took less time for the two-year candidates to get through the six questions, those candidates took additional questions from the audience of roughly 30 people. More people attended virtually via a livestream.
And the answers to the questions posed were often varied and insightful about more than just how individual candidates approach the town-gown portion of being a City Council member.
We take a look at what was said by the respective candidates, starting with those in the four-year race.
Adam DeLay positions himself as a champion of students, on and off campus.
One of the main issues that drew varied responses from the candidates was the City’s decision to close down the Albert EL Fresco and the question of what could be done in the future to provide more amenities for students and new college grads. By virtue of random order, DeLay went first on this issue, and he offered an impassioned response.
The Albert EL Fresco should never have been closed, DeLay said, and in fact it should have been made permanent and expanded, which is what he intends to do if elected. He said he was disappointed that the City didn’t trust students with this amenity.
DeLay, throughout the debate, was emphatic about supporting students, banging his hand on the table at one point to emphasize his point. When asked about how the City can include more student voices, and serve them, DeLay suggested that the City could engage with MSU to advocate for students. Generally, the City doesn’t have a huge impact on the day-to-day life of students, DeLay said, especially those who live on campus. But, he said, the City could lean on MSU to do better for students.
DeLay used the current shortage of student food service workers at MSU as an example and suggested the City could push MSU to raise the wages for those workers to encourage more people to apply and fill out that portion of the workforce on campus.
When City Ordinance 1500 came up, DeLay was again impassioned. This was the expired-before-starting ordinance which would have altered the rental timeline for students so that they aren’t being pushed to decide on leases nearly a year in advance of moving in.
“It’s absolutely unfair, it’s absurd, and I would’ve strongly supported Ordinance 1500. I think it should not take a lawsuit in order for students on campus to have housing rights. It is absolutely a racket, what the large-scale landlords are doing,” DeLay said. “I don’t feel sorry for DTN when it comes to our rental properties on campus. You guys deserve the ability to get in, to live, to see what you want to do. Because I’ve been there, where you are, when it comes to August, and it’s a madhouse and there’s four hundred people outside of the leasing office trying to scramble to figure out where you want to live a year from now.”
At another point in the forum, when discussing housing, DeLay indicated he wanted to open up the use of rental overlay districts in the City and scale back the use of single-family zoning to encourage more varied, and affordable, housing developments.
George Brookover’s answers were shorter and often framed as attending to the “multi-generational” nature of East Lansing.
By contrast, Brookover said he wouldn’t support a law like Ordinance 1500. Brookover said that the City already has legal methods to protect tenants and questioned the constitutionality of Ordinance 1500. He also said it’s worth considering the impacts on landlords. Brookover, who is an attorney, said he is now representing three women who had been victimized by their landlord and they plan to sue the landlord, and said that other such remedies were already available.
“There are options out there for people that do the wrong thing, and we have legislation that’s already in existence,” Brookover said.
Brookover was not as ardently pro-student as DeLay and his answers to the questions highlighted this and some other differences between Brookover and the rest of the candidates. However, despite not being the apparently fierce voice for students that DeLay wants to be, several of Brookover’s answers show that he certainly doesn’t wish to alienate them, either.
Brookover didn’t take a specific stance on the Albert EL Fresco, but was supportive of the City expanding “multi-generational” experiences like that social space. East Lansing is a town where students and older residents have mingled for years, Brookover said, and the City should be encouraging such things and making sure that they’re safe and entertaining for everybody. The multi-generational quality is something Brookover said he enjoys about East Lansing.
And when asked about how to include student voices in City government, Brookover suggested three things. First, he said he would continue to be personally involved in efforts to register students to vote. Second, like Bollman, he said he would seek student representation in various parts of City government, and from students beyond the sphere of ASMSU.
Third, Brookover said he’d like to lean on MSU as a resource for expertise and consulting more often. The City could likely save a lot of money and build inroads with MSU, he suggested, by trying to hire professors and students to do various studies and work the City otherwise contracts out to professional firms.
“And [it would] have as good or better result because (a) you know the town, you live here, and (b) you’re involved in an academic discipline at that point in time that’s studying the precise thing that the City needs,” Brookover said.
Other answers from Brookover were short and straightforward, like when he was asked how he’d continue and expand efforts to foster diversity, equity, and inclusion in the City. Brookover’s entire answer: “Rigorous enforcement of our human rights ordinances. Continuing vigilance towards police interactions with minorities. And increased attention to availability of housing to all economic groups.”
Dana Watson focused on continuing her efforts to fight racism in various forms.
In response the question about diversity, equity, and inclusion, Watson spoke about some of her accomplishments on Council, including reforms to the disorderly conduct code that freed the nipple in East Lansing, work on declaring racism a public health crisis in the City, plus current efforts to pass a version of the CROWN Act in the City, which would prohibit hair-based discrimination.
Watson, in this response and several others, highlighted equitable practices and social justice as her passions.
“Maybe it’s because I’m Black,” Watson said. “Maybe it’s because my pronouns are she/her. But I also think it’s because of my children, and just wanting a better world, a better City, a better nation.”
Having indicated a steady interest in more equitable housing, Watson also gave an impassioned answer on the question of Ordinance 1500. Watson, along with then-Mayor Aaron Stephens, were the original supporters of this measure, proposed to them by ASMSU.
As an MSU alum who said she has dealt with renting and living in the Lansing and East Lansing areas as both a student and graduate, she indicated she empathized with student renters. She also highlighted how the current rental timeline keeps other renters from accessing the market.
“When people are looking for a place to rent, they’re not always looking for it for nine months down the line. And so it blocks people [besides students] out, this system,” Watson said. “But it also cages students in where you don’t cage anyone else in.”
Watson also spoke about the Albert EL Fresco, noting she liked the effect it had on the downtown but also acknowledged that problems were cropping up at night. She supported bringing it back, but after further planning to ensure it could be safe.
Chuck Grigsby spoke about his work promoting civil rights while also speaking to the challenges the City faces day-to-day.
In response to the diversity question, Grigsby highlighted his work on the Human Rights Commission, which he has been chairing, and on working to establish the City’s first Independent Police Oversight Commission. Along with Watson, he played a role in the City declaring racism a public health crisis, and he served as the chair of the Study Committee on an Independent Police Oversight Commission.
Grigsby spoke about intentionally bringing on a student to the Human Rights Commission and to his work leading protests related to perceived racial bias in East Lansing policing and to militarized policing.
On more student-centric matters, Grigsby took what seemed a more moderate path than Watson, DeLay, or Brookover. When asked about the Albert EL Fresco and including students in amenity design, Grigsby said the EL Fresco was probably closed prematurely, but was closed for good reasons, alluding to the violence that had been breaking out and taxing police resources.
He’d want to reopen the social space, Griggsby said, but only after planning had been done to ensure it could remain open without straining public safety resources.
On Ordinance 1500, Grigsby said he really didn’t know how he would have voted on it. He said he’s cognizant of the harm being caused to students by the informal system of signing leases so far in advance, and said he would like to come to a solution that includes both renters and landlords being satisfied.
Dan Bollman’s approach centered on zoning and how that has shaped and will shape what happens in this City.
In his answers, Bollman, an architect and chair of the Planning Commission, talked about how zoning has shaped so many issues, from who has been able to live here to who wants to live here.
Asked about Albert EL Fresco, Bollman posited that part of the appeal of the EL Fresco is that it wasn’t permanent — that it was a temporary fun space — and agreed with Watson and Grigsby about the problems happening at night. The problems also weren’t directly tied to the students, Bollman said, citing the shooting that occurred near the EL Fresco in late July.
Bollman suggested “tactical urbanism” as an alternative, or converting the downtown portion of Albert Street that was closed for the EL Fresco into a permanent woonerf — a streetscape intended to be shared simultaneously and safely by pedestrian, bicycle, and automobile traffic. That, he noted, had been the original design for the space when the Center City project was built.
Bollman had a very simple and strong message in regards to increasing student voices in the City government: Students should sign up for vacancies on the City’s various boards and commissions. By serving on those bodies and bringing their voices and perspectives, Bollman said, students would ultimately be advising the decisions of City Council.
As to Ordinance 1500, Bollman was on the fence. He was generally supportive of protecting students and renters, but wasn’t sure that the ordinance as drafted — basically lifted from Ann Arbor — was sufficient. He also took issue with the fact it relied on the “shoulder communities” of Lansing and Meridian Township to get on board for it to be effective. Bollman wanted more info and data from students about the issue, on top of some of the anecdotes they’ve given, to make the case for this change. He pushed students to bring that data.
Bollman also spoke frequently about the need for more affordable housing — as did basically all the candidates — and suggested multiple times that the zoning of the City needs to be changed. “Exclusionary zoning” is part of East Lansing’s history, Bollman said. He said that has created problems, but those are fixable. This would include paring back single-family zoning, though maybe not to the degree DeLay would. Bollman is strongly in favor of allowing Accessory Dwelling Units to increase density while, he says, maintaining the character of the near-university neighborhoods.
The two-year race: Ron Bacon versus Mikey Manuel
The first portion of the night’s events, featuring two-year candidates Ron Bacon and Mikey Manuel, was more subdued than the five-candidate forum that followed, but still showed some difference between the candidates in this race.
Manuel said that he was running to help other small business owners, and to help people who want their voices heard. He called the three resignations from Council in the last year “borderline embarrassing” for the City and said he thought he and Bacon could both be trusted to serve out the full term if elected.
In his remarks, Bacon said he is “really interested” in housing issues and regional partnerships. Bacon said he also wants to eliminate “redundancies” in the City’s laws and to make it easier to live and build in East Lansing.
Manuel was fairly mum on the Albert EL Fresco issue, stating that he’d like to see that and other ideas go forward and be open to students. He pressed for the concept of free parking downtown after 5 p.m. and on weekends to support local businesses by drawing more customers. He acknowledged that this would create a financial challenge for the City but suggested it would be worth the lost revenue as it might help to fill up empty storefronts and enliven downtown.
Saying that placemaking is here to stay, Bacon said that he wants the EL Fresco to open earlier in the spring and run into the fall and that he’d plan to do so this upcoming year. In general, Bacon was complimentary of the City’s placemaking team, particularly Adam Cummins, and promised that there’d be future efforts, EL Fresco and beyond.
When asked about Ordinance 1500, Bacon explained that he voted “no” on the Ordinance not because he didn’t want to protect students, but he wasn’t sure it was the right move to make during the pandemic, or before some more new student housing came open in the coming months and years.
Bacon said he was also concerned about East Lansing landlords being disadvantaged by the law. He said the issue is one that should be addressed regionally — a frequent theme in his answers — and he didn’t like that the East Lansing ordinance was so narrow and relied on other communities to pass similar laws.
Manuel spoke to there being a necessary balance between landlords making a living and students and renters having privacy. In the case of Ordinance 1500, he said he didn’t think this delay in the rental timeline was preventing landlords from earning their money, while it did protect renters. He said he “absolutely” would have voted in favor of Ordinance 1500.
You can watch the forums in this video provided by ASMSU. If you want to see the four-year candidates’ forum, move the video forward to the 55:00 minute mark.
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Correction: This article previously stated that DeLay indicated he was in favor of eliminating rental overlay districts, which he is not. DeLay stated on Monday that he is in favor of scaling back single-family zoning and “opening up” the overlay districts to allow a greater variety of housing options. This story has been updated to reflect this information accurately.