East Lansing’s City Council heard prepared remarks from the five finalists for the vacant seat on council this morning, but pushed off the decision of who to appoint until Council’s meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 17.
Mayor Ron Bacon, who made the motion to end the meeting before any discussion of the candidates, said the presentations had given the council much to think about and he wanted more time.
Mayor Pro Tem Jessy Gregg and Councilmember Dana Watson supported Bacon’s motion, with Councilmember George Brookover being the lone vote against. Brookover did not give a reason for his vote.
The meeting was held at the Hannah Community Center with fewer than a dozen citizens attending this unusual Saturday-morning session, held on a holiday weekend. The City Manager and City Attorney were not in attendance. City Clerk Jennifer Shuster assisted Council, and she confirmed for ELi the meeting was not recorded or broadcast for public view.
While the published agenda referred to “interviews,” each candidate was asked to respond to questions provided to them in advance and there were no follow-up questions. Candidates were given the opportunity to talk about themselves, their backgrounds, their take on equity and inclusion, their visions for economic development, and what issues they think are the most pressing for the City of East Lansing.
Nichole Biber was invited to present first and said that her whole approach is about “how the land is present [in discussions and deliberations] or how it is not.” She referred frequently to her Native American heritage as informing her worldview, saying she comes from people who are often referred to as “the invisible people” in this country. But she also spoke of growing up in poverty and how that has impacted how she sees issues like access to good housing.
Now a library paraprofessional for the East Lansing Public Schools, Biber said she is a first-generation college student and that the PhD she earned in English from Michigan State University has helped her “interrogate narratives” to understand the interaction between details and the big picture. Biber raised concerns about climate change, the sixth major mass extinction, pollution and what she called overdevelopment.
Biber said she wants East Lansing’s Council to become “a model of the possible” in terms of environmental responsibility. She advocated for clean water infrastructure and habitat restoration. She urged leadership in equity and inclusion. As for economic development, she wants to see a “restoration-based economy,” with rethinking and replacement of “the consumptive model.” She gave an example of supporting local food production.
Abigail Tykocki presented next, tracing her varied employment history in arts management, the global hedge fund industry, and municipally-owned internet provision. Now a manager for MSU’s Department of Theater and a communications specialist for MSU’s College of Arts & Letters, Tykocki spoke of her leadership in the Pinecrest Neighborhood, where she is president. She described actions taken during the pandemic to support Pinecrest and also noted she co-organized the Pinecrest Juneteenth demonstrations after the murder of George Floyd, an event that was attended by city-wide leaders.
Tykocki summarized her varied volunteer work for the community including service on the Arts Commission and in the public schools. Asked what she would hope to accomplish before November, she said she would seek to improve the quality of life in East Lansing and help residents get to know her better.
As for pressing issues, Tykocki named the city’s finances, the deer cull, and the city’s need to attend to bigotry and prejudice, particularly in light of data that shows East Lansing is becoming more diverse. Asked about economic development, Tykocki said she wants to see Council focus on supporting diverse, safe and attractive neighborhoods, multimodal transportation, parks and meadows, and downtown amenities like the Albert EL Fresco.
Presenting next, Noel Garcia Jr. said he is the son of migrant working parents who came to Lansing for a better life. His father worked on the line for Oldsmobile and his mother as a janitor for Michigan State University. He spoke of his degrees in criminal justice and his work at the Lansing Police Department where he became a lieutenant before retirement and where he worked on recruitment and retention of a more diverse officer corps in terms of race, ethnicity and gender. He said he also worked on a program with MSU Professor Terry Curry to institute a fairer discipline system for LPD officers, one that would be less subjective.
Garcia said he frequently sought out opportunities to engage with government, including when he was a LPD officer and volunteered to attend Lansing’s City Council meetings. He currently serves on East Lansing’s Police Oversight Commission where he chairs the Complaints Committee, and said he wants to continue working with that group, potentially as a Council liaison.
Now a “junior police academy” teacher with the Wilson Talent Center in Mason, Garcia said his experience as a single father of twin boys who came to East Lansing Public Schools through Schools of Choice ultimately led him to move his family to East Lansing as he “fell in love with East Lansing.” His volunteer service includes the public schools, local youth sports and a statewide commission on Hispanic and Latino affairs. He named as concerns for East Lansing the need for conscious and bold leadership in diversity, equity and inclusion, improvement of community relations, and economic development to ensure fair and equitable access.
Mikey Manuel presented fourth, saying he comes from a family steeped in small business, with a mother raised in a single-parent household in California and his father having lived in a refugee camp in Beirut, Lebanon. He now runs a staff of about 30 people at Blondie’s Barn in Haslett. He noted he is a member of the Parks and Rec Advisory Commission and with the Environmental Stewardship Program.
Asked what he would do in the next year, Manual said he would try to reach out and learn from as many people as he could. As for what he sees as major issues facing the city, Manuel named concerns he heard as he canvassed when he ran for council in 2021: the high price of housing here; environmental challenges residents are facing in terms of wildlife including skunks, raccoon, and deer; and the challenges East Lansing Police officers face from accusations and their “realtime concerns.” He said Council would never find a more pro-police person than him.
As for issues of equity and inclusion, Manuel said the first step is to acknowledge the problem. In terms of economic development, he called East Lansing’s last decade a success and said he wants to see the growth of small businesses become a priority.
Daniel Bollman presented last, noting his background in architecture and planning. The owner of a local architectural firm and until recently the chair of the East Lansing Planning Commission, Bollman focused on how better urban planning could potentially solve a host of issues, including helping to make housing more accessible and affordable to more people. He spoke of instituting a system allowing for accessory dwelling units, a test of form-based code, upzoning properties across East Lansing to allow for more density and development, and better approaches to parking. Bollman also wants to see more support for redevelopment of outdated buildings.
Asked to name top concerns, Bollman referred to attainability and affordability of housing, saying he wants to see serious consideration of getting rid of rental-restriction overlay districts. He said he is “embarrassed frankly at the level of exclusivity we have adopted.” He also wants to see improvement of town-gown relations and a balanced approach to policing that recognizes that college towns can bring behaviors (like noise and drunkenness) that year-round residents will find problematic.
Bollman said one has to accept one is going to make mistakes in dealing with equity and inclusion and gave as an example that he sometimes mistakenly uses the wrong pronouns for his children’s nonbinary friends. He spoke of the need to uplift and support diversity and said the city should pay attention to the way zoning and planning can unintentionally discriminate.
Two people made public comments after the presentations.
Angelo Moreno, chair for the union of the East Lansing Public Library’s nonsupervisory workers, urged council to raise wages, saying most of their unit’s positions start at under $15 an hour, noting that the library millage passed by about 85 percent.
Moreno said Council should not be primarily getting direction and leadership from the city manager but giving it to him. The voters will support this, he said, adding that nationwide surveys show Americans are in favor of collective bargaining and worker empowerment. Moreno advocated that Council “not let HR [the Human Resources department] do what it pleases.” He also urged Council to ask for the opinions of workers, not just department heads, about issues of concern in the city.
“Treat us as an asset and partner, not as a liability or a nuisance,” Moreno said.
Susan Froetschel also came forward to speak during public comment as a resident. She said she is concerned about Council potentially appointing a candidate who recently ran for office and lost, as they did not have the majority support of voters. She also stated a concern “about the limited notice about this meeting.”
And, Froetschel said, “I wish there was a candidate with strong background in finance and budgeting. Finance decisions tend to reinforce the many concerns we hear about in this community over and over.”
She referred to “economic and tax injustice for staff and residents, shortsighted infrastructure decisions, environment degradation, and misplaced police or health priorities.”
Councilmembers did not respond to either speaker.
Council’s agenda had called for “deliberation and potential action” on the issue of the appointment, but that did not happen at this meeting, as noted above. These actions are expected to take place at the Council meeting set for Tuesday, Jan. 17, starting at 7 p.m. at the Hannah Community Center. The posted agenda has already been amended to show this topic will be discussed after public comment.