News Analysis: Are You On or Off East Lansing’s Political Power Grid?

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A close-up of the "Neighborhood Associations" map from the City of East Lansing (with a question mark added by ELi).

After Jessy Gregg takes the oath of office this week to become Mayor of East Lansing, following the resignation of Aaron Stephens, she will inherit the monthly meeting of a special advisory group, the Council of Neighborhood Presidents.  

And at those meetings, the somewhat arbitrary assortment of neighborhood reps who attend will continue to have extraordinary face-time not only with the City’s newest mayor but with other City Council members, the City Manager, and heads of City departments. The neighborhood reps will also continue to have important concerns directly addressed, enjoying a kind of political access that can be difficult to obtain otherwise in East Lansing.

But many residents of East Lansing will continue to go unrepresented. 

That’s because what is known as “the Council of Neighborhood Presidents” (CoNP) includes simply those who happen to know about the meetings and show up. Thousands of people in East Lansing have no “representatives” who attend. Many are not even aware of these meetings. 

In fact, some residents of East Lansing live in areas that have no “neighborhood” recognized by the City (see the map), which raises the question of whether they even can be represented at these meetings. That includes, for example, the people who live in the affordable-housing complex called Deerpath Apartments, the senior apartments at 1777 Haslett Rd., Hillcrest Village (one block east of Frandor), and even the apartment complex where Mayor Stephens himself has lived, near the Lake Lansing Road Meijer.

People living at 1777 Haslett Road (a senior apartment complex) and Deerpath Apartments (an affordable housing complex) have no neighborhood association according to the City’s map. (Orange star added by ELi to show location.)

Notably, the CoNP itself has no legal existence in the City. 

CoNP is neither enacted by the City Charter nor by a City Ordinance. Under the “government” tab of the City’s website, unlike the official Boards and Commissions, you won’t find anything about CoNP. Nor will you find mention of CoNP at the East Lansing Neighborhoods page, maintained through the City. 

Because the organization has no legal existence and does not formally advise Council, it is not subject to the Michigan Open Meetings Act. There are no public notices that the meetings will be happening. No minutes are produced, and no organized records are kept for easy public inspection. 

The group has been meeting by Zoom during the pandemic, but the City has not openly listed the meetings or made recordings of the meetings available, as it has with the meetings of designated Boards and Commissions. People who know about the meeting just happen to have gotten on the right email list over the years.

Based on oral history, it appears that CoNP was created decades ago as a way for neighborhood leaders to engage, in an efficient forum, with the mayor of East Lansing. 

ELi has been told that, originally, the group would meet without the mayor to set the agenda for when they would meet with the mayor. 

But for at least the last decade, the mayor has been in control of the meetings. And, in that last decade, the forum has often been used for pushing out news about particular political agendas. 

Some mayors have used the forum, for example, to introduce the neighborhood reps to members of Council running for reelection, giving those incumbent candidates a leg up others don’t have.

Far from being representative of the population of East Lansing as a whole, CoNP is made up almost entirely of white homeowners, most of them above age 50. 

Politically-active neighborhoods with well-organized associations, like Bailey, have been quite consistently represented in CoNP discussions. Residents of Bailey are represented by people specifically elected by members (chiefly homeowners) of the neighborhood. 

While some other East Lansing neighborhoods (particularly condo associations) have formal homeowner associations with legally-formalized organizing documents and elected reps, many “neighborhoods” in East Lansing have either no formalized system or a representative system that has faded. In both of those cases, they may go unrepresented at CoNP.

For example, while there are now thousands of people living in the neighborhood East Lansing has identified as “Downtown,” there is no organization for that population and no rep to CoNP. While Whitehills and Glencairn have had neighborhood associations, neither has had a representative come to CoNP for some time.

Hillcrest Village apartments (marked with a yellow star by ELi) and Hidden Tree (red star) are in no-association lands, according to the City of East Lansing’s neighborhood associations map. “Downtown” (pink star) exists as a “neighborhood” on the map even though it has no association.

Meanwhile, some relatively small geographic areas with relatively few residents function as full-blown “neighborhoods” at CoNP. The Abbott Woods condo association has been represented at CoNP by ex-mayor Mark Meadows since a few months after his resignation. (At CoNP, with Stephens in the mayor chair, Meadows has weighed in on many issues, effectively maintaining a degree of open political power in East Lansing’s system.)

Whether the neighborhood “reps” to CoNP convey information and concerns back and forth from CoNP to their neighborhoods is a different issue entirely. Not all do, because not all have organized associations that can reach residents. 

What is clear is that it’s a lot easier to get the ear of the mayor (and a lot of other influential people) at a CoNP meeting than through, say, public comment at City Council, which limits one’s remarks to five minutes and at which the mayor feels no compunction to reply.

CoNP may be taking a “back to the future” approach soon.

During the period when Ruth Beier was mayor, just before Covid-19 reached East Lansing, a movement formed at CoNP to return to something like the original model – with the neighborhood reps functioning as the agenda-setters for meetings. Beier was supportive of that idea.

Since then, a small group of long-time CoNP reps have been discussing development of a new approach. That group has included Raymond Vlasin of Harrison Meadows, Ruth Stump of Red Cedar, Barb McMillan of Chartwell Condominiums, Ralph Monsma of Pinecrest, and Anne Hill of Hawk Nest. They are planning to bring forward their recommendations soon, according to a communication to ELi from Vlasin. (Read it here.)

To get hard data about things like housing and political representation in East Lansing, Hill has independently been tracking the public qualified voter rolls and property records of East Lansing and has confirmed that there are thousands of year-round East Lansing residents effectively unrepresented at CoNP. Besides those already mentioned, she notes that there’s a swath of residences that include Hidden Tree and the complexes just east of there, north of Saginaw Street, between Harrison and Abbot Roads.

Also missing representation at CoNP and the City’s Neighborhoods map are relatively new subdivisions in the City’s Northern Tier, including Eagle Eye and Falcon Pointe and the Villas at Stratford Place.

The Villas at Stratford are an example of one relatively new subdivision that has as association but is not recognized by the City’s neighborhood association map. (Orange arrow and box added by ELi.)

CoNP has always been treated as an “open meeting” in practice; no one has been turned away from attending. 

This means it is easy for a person who believes they represent a neighborhood to attend, participate, and convey information from the meeting. 

In conjunction with this article, Hill told ELi that anyone who wants to be brought up to speed and connected to CoNP can reach out to her by contacting ELi and letting us know to connect them. She has said she is also happy to help people learn what they’ve missed and to convey questions and concerns.

The next meeting of CoNP will be on Monday, Sept. 20, according to Emily Gordon, Assistant to City Council.

Disclosures: Ray Vlasin is ELi’s Board Treasurer and Anne Hill serves on our Community Advisory Board. Alice Dreger has functioned for about ten years as a representative for the Oakwood Historic Neighborhood to CONP.

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