City Council Selects 13 Interviewees for 2 Open Seats, Finalizes List of Questions

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The three remaining City Council members worked last night on selecting two new members.

Of the 23 apparently-eligible candidates to apply for the two open seats on East Lansing City Council, 13 will be publicly interviewed this evening and tomorrow morning for 25 minutes each, after the remaining three members of City Council thinned the applicant pool and finalized interview questions on Wednesday night in an online meeting.

The plan is to make the final selection of the two new members Saturday morning at a meeting set to start at 10 a.m.

The two seats on Council came open when then-Mayor Ruth Beier and Mark Meadows abruptly resigned following the termination of the City Attorney Tom Yeadon’s contract, a termination effective October 1

Council had originally planned to interview all applicants for the two seats. But the quantity of candidates hit the point where the members decided that a first-round selection process needed to occur.

To decide which candidates to interview, at the start of last night’s discussion each Council member offered a list of eight names and explained their general methods for assembling their lists.

In total, they named 13 individuals out of the 23, and then decided that that number of interviews was doable. Below is the list of the 13 selected applicants and who selected them for an interview.

  • Chuck Grigsby (unanimous)
  • Dana Watson (unanimous)
  • Dan Bollman (unanimous)
  • Nichole Biber (unanimous)
  • Peter Dewan (unanimous)
  • Ron Bacon (Jessy Gregg and Aaron Stephens)
  • Bezil Taylor (Gregg)
  • Adam DeLay (Gregg)
  • Janeile Cannon (Lisa Babcock)
  • John Monberg (Babcock)
  • Andrew Neumann (Babcock)
  • Rod Murphy (Stephens)
  • Jennifer Carrera (Stephens)

Gregg read her list first, explaining that she weighed experience within the City of East Lansing — serving on commissions or boards, etc. — and relevant professional experience.

Babcock said she looked for different “walks of life,” she said, and things that “didn’t necessarily slot into boards and commissions.”

Stephens described his four main criteria: active community involvement, background in city work or public services, career or education and relating expertise, and finally commitment to equity. 

Mayor Aaron Stephens at the July 29, 2020, virtual meeting of Council.

Stephens said he also valued “a perspective that we don’t necessarily have on the city council right now [and] those who received strong public comment.”

After selecting the 13 candidates for interviews, Council moved on to the trickier task of deciding what to ask them.

The interviews are designed to be 25 minutes each, with a five minute buffer built in to facilitate candidates coming and going from the Zoom sessions.

The original intent was to compose a list of six questions — taking suggestions submitted by City staff and citizens — to give candidates time to answer questions fully in the 25-minute format.

But these eight finalized questions will be the ones asked:

  1. Tell us about your background, education and work/volunteer experience as it relates to serving as a Councilmember for the City of East Lansing?
  2. If appointed, what would you like to accomplish over the next year?
  3. What do you believe to be the three most pressing concerns to the community of East Lansing?
  4. If asked to be a liaison to two of East Lansing’s commissions or groups, which two would you select and why?
  5. What would you do to fully understand an important East Lansing community issue before you undertake City Council action regarding it?
  6. What do you believe is necessary to intentionally address issues of equity and inclusion within our community and how does your past experience inform your commitment in this area?
  7. What is your vision for economic development in the City of East Lansing?
  8. Is there anything else you’d like to add that we did not get to ask you about?

The first and last questions came from City Manager George Lahanas, who was East Lansing’s Director of Human Resources before he was named City Manager.

Draft questions’ potential for varied and informative answers was a prime concern for the three on Council. Questions which were deemed likely to prompt uninformative, redundant, or irrelevant responses — like an inquiry about whether applicants, if appointed, planned to run for election in 2021 — were nixed.

The group discussed a suggested question from Hawk Nest Neighborhood President Anne Hill about experience with budgets and financial statements, but ultimately did not include it.

They also mentioned but did not ultimately include questions from Hill and other citizens about the ability to commit as much time as the position realistically requires.

“If we’re going to ask five or six questions, aligning them with major policy issues would be my preferred format,” Gregg said.

Mayor Pro Tem Jessy Gregg at the July 29, 2020, virtual meeting of Council.

Stephens agreed with Gregg on the need for policy-specific questions, particularly on racial equity and inclusion, and he proposed and pushed hard for the question on that topic.

Stephens also threw his full support behind Question No. 4, about which boards and commissions a candidate would like to serve as Council’s liaison. That question was suggested by citizen Ray Vlasin, who served on the City’s Financial Health Team. (Disclosure: Vlasin is ELi’s Board Treasurer.)

Question No. 7 on economic development stemmed from concerns about COVID-19’s impact on local business and the likely necessity of a lengthy economic recovery. Gregg raised the issue and pointed out the remainder of the terms for the two appointees will largely be spent facilitating that recovery. 

With eight questions instead of six, concern arose over finishing interviews on time.

Lahanas suggested explaining the 25-minute limit up front and having a hard cutoff. The three Council members agreed to that.

At the end of the discussion of questions, Babcock raised a final issue.

Council member Lisa Babcock at the July 29, 2020, virtual meeting of Council.

Babcock spoke of East Lansing’s City Charter’s requirements for Council members and said candidates had been checked for those qualifications. But, she said, there was a 2010 amendment to the Michigan Constitution that additionally prevents anyone convicted of violating the public trust in the last 20 years from serving on Council.

This issue has not been raised previously in the process.

“I feel absolutely remiss that we didn’t mention this,” Babcock said. “I’m also ninety-nine-percent sure it’s not going to be an issue. But perhaps City Attorney Yeadon could advise us as to how to proceed, having not warned people before they applied?”

“Frankly I’m not familiar with that provision,” Yeadon responded. “So I’d have to get back to you.”

“If we could get an answer to that,” Stephens said, “that would be great.”

As required under the Michigan Open Meetings Act, citizens can offer public comment at any of the meetings. For the two meetings involving interviews, citizens can speak before the interviews. For the meeting where selection will occur, there is not yet an agenda posted. Citizens can also write to Council via email.

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