With Election Day (Nov. 2) and absentee voting drawing near, ELi is asking candidates for East Lansing City Council to answer questions that have arisen from the survey in which we asked readers to name the issues and questions that matter to them in this election. We are developing questions that are about issues that are city-wide (not specific to one neighborhood or constituency) and that are relatively frequently named by survey respondents.
Today, we provide candidates’ answers to this question:
“What is your take on the City Manager’s job performance and Council’s decision to renew his contract early with a “golden parachute” clause?”
By way of background, the City Council has the power, under the City Charter, to hire and fire for only two positions: City Manager and City Attorney.
The City Council that included Mayor Aaron Stephens, Mayor Pro Tem Jessy Gregg, Lisa Babcock, Ron Bacon, and Dana Watson voted unanimously to extend City Manager George Lahanas’ contract a year ago, well before the contract was up, something Babcock named as a regret in a recent interview with ELi, but that now-Mayor Gregg said in response (on Facebook) was the right move.
There has been no performance evaluation of Lahanas by Council in the year since the contract was renewed. Babcock and Bacon were tasked with that job by Council several months ago. A number of ELi readers named the contract renewal and manager’s performance as issues for them in this election.
We sent the question noted above to the candidates at noon on Tuesday, Sept. 28, and asked for a response of no more than 200 words within 48 hours. All responded, all on time and under the word-count limit.
The answers from the candidates are shown below. ELi has not edited the responses in any way other than to add quotation marks. We are splitting them into the 4-year and 2-year races, and, within those groupings, we are presenting them in the order received.
As a reminder, voters can choose up to two candidates for the 4-year race (two seats are open), and one candidate for the 2-year race.
George Brookover (4-year)
“I have no comment with regard to your compound question. All public employees should be evaluated annually consistent with the provisions of their applicable job contract.”
Chuck Grigsby (4-year)
“Looking back, I personally didn’t understand the reason for renewing the City Manager contract early. I think an opportunity was missed to hear from the future candidates about their solutions, ideas, and vision for the City of East Lansing. Even if the future members of City Council would have stayed the course with our current City Manager, having the interview process play itself out as planned would have been good, as the early re-signing of the contract appeared to happen behind closed doors, and only reported after the fact. As such, I would have to say that in the areas of transparency and communication, I would like to see an improvement in this area, where the community feels informed, involved, and heard with the decision-making in the city government.”
Adam DeLay (4-year)
“I think the city manager’s performance has been mixed. On the one hand, I believe he is very knowledgeable and effective when it comes to day-to-day operations. For example, I thought he handled the hiring of the new parks and recreation director in an open and fair manner, and I was appreciative to be able to participate in that process as a member of the Parks Commission. I also think he has been helpful in guiding a relatively inexperienced council through meetings.
“I do think, however, that the city manager has been slow to seriously lean into issues such as police reform, and while some steps have been taken, I get the sense that additional reforms may be met with resistance. The way the excessive force complaints against Officer Andrew Stephenson were handled were questionable at best. I also believe that the ‘golden parachute’ clause of his contract is far too generous, and would not have supported that clause. It has boxed the city in when it comes to negotiating a new contract in the future. I also believe that the manager’s salary is too high, given that it is higher than the mayor of Lansing’s salary.”
Daniel Bollman (4-year)
“One of the Council’s most important duties is to hire and oversee the City Manager. Since I am not currently on Council, I don’t have adequate information to make a full and fair assessment of Mr. Lahanas’ performance. Although there are differences of opinion among the current Councilmembers about the City Manager’s most recent contract renewal, the vote was unanimous and took place in the midst of significant upheaval.
“The last year and a half have been difficult for everyone. However, there are many things the City can celebrate, like the placemaking efforts to provide opportunities for safe socialization, continued progress on stabilizing the City’s fiscal position, and efforts to rebalance the relationship between the police department and community. Those elected to City Council this November will inherit an existing contract with Mr. Lahanas. If elected, I intend to focus on building relationships, while working with fellow council members and the City Manager to continue to find solutions for the city, and to course correct when needed. When the City Manager’s contract comes up for renewal in 2024, I’ll be jointly responsible for shaping whatever form that contract takes, remaining mindful of our aim to keep East Lansing moving forward.”
Dana Watson (4-year)
“Our city manager’s renewal took place after the city attorney’s dismissal by council, then two councilmembers resigned and there were calls for other resignations. A person in a similar position facing a council that could dismiss him will not have the security that City of East Lansing workers deserve. Topics and talks after the attorney was dismissed circled around whether the City Manager was next. A review of him was done, staff participated. I was on council and our process included staff experience with him along with many other parts of his work. We discussed his performance, gave feedback and encouragement to keep growing in some areas. It is easier to work out problems with staff (City Managers) when possible. Searches for replacements and firings dejects city staff morale and constituents sense and express their own concerns about the direction of the city. City Manager’s weathered difficult times, spear heads thorough planning for our city and adjusts to changes in courses. People like to see long time knowledge. He represents this, a long time attorney and two long time councilmembers were no longer there. The contract matched his abilities, acknowledged his hard work and provided needed security during instability.”
Ron Bacon (2-year)
“I am very happy with the performance of the City Manager, George Lahanas, particularly in his ability to organize and optimize our staff and resources during a global pandemic. On top of managing the day to day activities, he was both nimble while also providing stability and institutional memory as we placed not only new councilperson but also new public safety chiefs and director level roles within the organization. All of this while supporting our reimagined of our public safety apparatus, civil code and our downtown. What felt like a smart or pragmatic decision at the time to retain and extend, has become a stroke of brilliance in hindsight.”
Mikey Manuel (2-year)
“Now more than ever, stability for our city is vital. Given his resume and the work he’s provided for East Lansing over the last seventeen years, I believe George Lahanas is the right man for this job. Without doubt, he has been a key actor in the development and progression of our city.
“To question the terms of his latest contract, is the given right of every East Lansing resident. It is important that the citizens keep our municipal employees in check. It is also important that City Council play their part in keeping an open door and a transparent flow of communication with the people who elected them.
“As I was able to research more about the terms of this particular contract and able to compare it with other city manager contracts from around the state and country, I was able to learn that, across the board, a golden parachute clause is standard practice. And the goal here, is not just to keep our tenured employees happy but to keep our top positions lucrative and attractive for the inevitable day that the position need to be filled again.”
Check out ELi’s voter guide to find easy access to lots more information about this election!