Being on East Lansing’s City Council pays about $8,000 per year, except for the person the Council elects to serve as Mayor – that person earns about $10,000 per year. The Mayor’s and Council members’ salaries are set by East Lansing’s Officer Compensation Commission, which meets in odd-numbered years.
So, what do your City Council members do in addition to serving the people of East Lansing? How has this work influenced their efforts on Council?
ELi spoke to all five current Council members to bring you the scoop.
Mayor Aaron Stephens
Aaron Stephens automatically became Mayor upon Ruth Beier’s resignation from Council because he had been elected Mayor Pro Tem (substitute mayor) by the Council in Nov. 2019.
Stephens was an undergraduate student at MSU when he first ran for City Council in 2017, but before that, he had experience working in politics. He was a political science and pre-law major and had interned with Gretchen Driskell and the Michigan Senate Democrats.
He also co-founded MSU’s Students for Bernie Sanders campaign and subsequently worked with Hillary Clinton’s campaign and the PAC “For Our Future,” which aimed to elect Gretchen Whitmer governor in 2018.
Up until a few weeks ago, Stephens worked with the Michigan Education Association (MEA)—the largest teachers’ union in the state. In brief, he helped educators advocate for themselves. He was introduced to the position by a mutual friend while working for Clinton’s campaign. (Beier also worked for MEA.)
Recently, his work with MEA focused on educators’ concerns about returning to school during the pandemic. Stephens worked with teachers to relay their concerns to administrators.
But when he found there was not enough time to go around for his MEA work and taking over suddenly as Mayor of East Lansing, Stephens opted to resign last month from his regular employment.
“My responsibility is as an elected official,” Stephens told ELi.
Stephens told ELi yesterday that he does “need to get some regular employment soon” in order to pay the rent. He said he would “be seeking out some type of employment during this campaign cycle,” suggesting he’s planning to work for another Democratic campaign.
Stephens told ELi that he was drawn to his work with MEA because it involved advocating for people.
“I really love the work, and I am proud to do it,” said he. He enjoys hearing people out and translating their frustration into action.
He said he uses these same skills while on Council by listening to the people he represents. He said he finds rewarding any work where he can fight for the right cause.
Mayor Pro Tem Jessy Gregg
Stephens’ promotion to the position of Mayor left the Mayor Pro Tem seat empty until Stephens, Lisa Babcock, and Jessy Gregg elected Gregg to that position.
Regular ELi readers know that Gregg had been a reporter for ELi until she ran for City Council in 2019. Today, her chief employment comes from the fabric store she owns and operates, Seams, in downtown East Lansing, next to Woven Arts.
Gregg made the decision to start her own store in April 2019 when Grove Art Gallery did not renew its lease.
“I felt like I was sitting at a green light and all the signals were telling me to go, go,” Gregg told ELi.
Gregg has a fiber art background and has experience in purchasing and inventory, so opening Seams “was a relatively natural next step.” She was also swayed by the opportunity of low overhead costs in a location next to an established business in the industry.
Gregg loves guiding and supporting all those interested in sewing, from the most basic beginner to the most experienced in the craft.
“Everyone assumes that the reason that their clothes don’t feel right is because there’s something wrong with their body, but the fact is that mass-manufactured clothing fits most people badly, as well as being a terrible industry both in labor and environmental practices,” said Gregg.
Gregg’s sees her work as a small business owner as having prepared her well for Council. As a small business owner, she has a first-hand perspective on how and why East Lansing is losing small businesses and not attracting new ones.
Additionally, “Being a small business owner is an exercise in constant adaptation and problem-solving, which is true of public service as well,” she said.
Before her election, Gregg served on the Ingham County Parks Commission and East Lansing Arts Commission, which taught her not only parliamentary procedure but also background on issues that she now must address on Council.
Council has affected Gregg’s other commitments, reducing the time she has to serve in community organizations.
“My life right now pretty much consists of the store, Council, and my family in three, relatively-equal pie slices,” she explained.
Council Member Lisa Babcock
Babcock earned her undergraduate degree from the University of Michigan and then followed her childhood dream of becoming a reporter, inspired by Hugh McDiarmid, a columnist with the Detroit Free Press.
She worked for the Petoskey News-Review. Describing her time there, she told ELi, “As the local newspaper of record, it covered ALL of the local governments. No ZBA [Zoning Board of Appeals] matter was too small!”
Like Gregg, as a reporter Babcock expanded her understanding of local politics, but she “wanted to be part of making decisions rather than standing on the sidelines.”
The death of Thurgood Marshall was the tipping point in pushing her toward a legal career.
“I knew he was the first African American on the U.S. Supreme Court, but I didn’t know that he was the attorney in Brown v. Board of Education, which profoundly changed my life by desegregating schools.”
She moved downstate to work on the State Senate policy staff while attended law school at MSU in the evenings. During her legal career, she worked on issues related to the environment and energy, including work with the New York State legislature.
What drew her to the legal profession? The ability of law to change the world.
Said Babcock, “You can use words to change people’s lives and make the world a better, fairer place. It’s not always easy and it’s almost never quick, but it’s the best tool available.”
Her career in law has prepared her for the copious legal issues that being a Council member involves. Since being sworn in last November, for her work on Council she has researched legal issues related to regarding policing; health and liquor codes (because of the pandemic); and, most recently, the City Charter’s provisions (in the face of Beier and Mark Meadows resigning).
Babcock is navigating balancing work with her responsibilities as an elected official. She is currently doing temp work but is planning to reenter the regular job market after October 1.
In the meantime, she is devoting her time to guiding the City through the pandemic, hiring a new city attorney, and managing finances in the face of the pandemic.
Babcock comes from a family dedicated to volunteerism, but she is currently only involved in one group as a volunteer, serving as the President of the nonprofit Pat Babcock Connect 4 Kids.
Council Member Dana Watson
As ELi reported previously, Dana Watson had been encouraged to run for City Council before the vacancies left by Beier and Meadows opened. Watson and Ron Bacon were appointed to Council by Stephens, Gregg, and Babcock on Aug. 1.
Watson has worked for the Ingham County Health Department since 2009, beginning as community health representative and then moving on to work as a communicable disease investigator and assistant social worker.
Since 2014, she has worked as a health educator, a role which has taken on new importance since the pandemic began. She currently is part of the COVID-19 Special Populations Team, helping Black and Latinx communities access testing and care.
Watson was inspired to pursue public health by the doctors with whom she had worked. According to Watson, these doctors “helped shaped my understanding of treating patients holistically.” She finds it rewarding to educate the public and to learn from others.
Watson is also active in the community. Because of the understanding she came to after her own cancer diagnosis at age 37, Watson is active in the Davies Project, through which volunteers provide rides to children with serious illnesses and to their guardians.
After personally benefiting from the services that the Capitol Area Housing Partnership (CAHP) offers, she now serves on CAHP’s Board of Directors. She told ELi, “Safe, affordable housing is important to me because I understand the impact it can have for a person or persons.” She says working with CAHP represents coming “full circle” for her.
Watson stated that she believes that this work with CAHP has prepared her for Council, as has her time spent as a Planning Commissioner for East Lansing. And, of course, she brings her work on community health to the table as Council grapples with the current public health emergency.
Council Member Ron Bacon
Ron Bacon currently works as a therapeutic area manager for Genentech, a Roche Company.
“I have a deep love for healthcare and science,” Bacon told ELi. “My current role allows me to combine product promotion with patient advocacy and elements of reimbursement.”
His current position builds upon his prior work with Syneos Health Learning Solutions, where he worked as a field reimbursement manager. In that role, he focused on economics and strategized the best way for patients to acquire needed therapies.
Bacon told ELi he loves his job because it allows him to interact with patients and advocate for them.
“The system is daunting and scary for patients,” he explained. His goal is to help improve people’s quality of life.
Bacon appreciates that he is part of the public-private partnership that helps patients navigate the process of finding the right treatment. He believes that his work has prepared him for Council by helping him develop a good understanding of systems and scalability.
It has also influenced his philosophy for problem-solving. Said Bacon, “The science of medicine has taught me that you can’t control for all inevitabilities, but you can do your best to protect people from known dangers and pitfalls.”
“From there you continue to iterate and improve, rather than dying on the hill of perfectionism,” he continued.
Outside of his employment with Genentech, he serves on the Martin Luther King, Jr. Commission of Mid-Michigan and on the Board of the East Lansing Educational Foundation.
When asked how these experiences prepared him for his new governmental position, he replied, “It is the communities and leaders that I have come into contact with simply from being involved and available to serve who have really changed my life.”