UPDATE: Council Puts Off Question of Adding 2 Seats to East Lansing’s City Council

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Alice Dreger for ELi

An historic City of East Lansing plaque near downtown.

UPDATE: As reported below, on Aug. 1, 2020, three members of City Council indicated they wanted to hurry to get a City Charter Amendment on the Nov. 2020 ballot for voters to consider adding two additional seats on the City Council.

But at the Aug. 11 meeting of City Council, Mayor Aaron Stephens and Council member Jessy Gregg said they had walked-back the idea in order to give the two new Council members time to participate in the decision of what type of Charter amendment to put to the voters on this issue.

Because the deadline has now passed to get this on the Nov. 2020 ballot, any possible Charter change won’t go to the voters before 2021 at the earliest.

Article from Aug. 1, 2020, follows:

At today’s special meeting of the East Lansing City Council – a meeting convened to fill two vacant seats by appointment – Council members Aaron Stephens, Jessy Gregg, and Lisa Babcock indicated a strong interest in bringing to the voters the idea of changing the total number of seats on City Council from five to seven.

The move would require a change of East Lansing’s City Charter.

That means an amendment to the Charter would need to be presented to voters on a ballot. Then the matter would be decided by a majority of registered East Lansing voters casting ballots in that election.

The change has been bandied around in local political dialogue for years, but to our knowledge, this is the first time the Council has indicated an intention to take this issue to the voters.

East Lansing has apparently had five members of City Council since the incorporation and creation of the Charter in 1907.

According to East Lansing historian Kevin Forsyth, “At the time of its incorporation, East Lansing was the smallest city in the state.” According to the City’s website, “East Lansing is now more than eight times larger [geographically] than at its founding.” It has about 60 times the population.

But it still has a five-member council.

Reached for comment, local politico and Ingham County Commissioner Mark Grebner – who has pushed this idea for some time – explained why he thinks the change is badly needed:

“Very small political bodies are typically unstable and subject to falling into weirdness pits.”

Saying he strongly supported the change, Grebner added, “The goal is to get it on the ballot so it doesn’t sound wrong, and it will get adopted. The language will be determinative in my opinion. The only thing that matters is how [the proposed Charter amendment] sounds. If it somehow sounds like it will cost more money, voters will vote it down, and if it sounds like it will be more democratic, the voters will support it.”

The urgency around this issue was felt by the Council members today in response to having what they saw as so many very well-qualified candidates for the two open seats.

As ELi reported earlier, the Council today voted in Dana Watson and Ron Bacon to fill those two open seats from 23 legally-qualified candidates. Thirteen of the 23 were named as finalists and given chances for presenting their cases.

The idea of the increase from five to seven seats was raised in today’s discussion first by Jessy Gregg, who became Mayor Pro Tem following the July 14 resignations of Ruth Beier and Mark Meadows.

Gregg said she thought the Council would “be more balanced” with seven members.

Then Stephens, who became Mayor after the resignations, brought up the issue again, following the vote to appoint Watson to Council but before the vote to appoint Bacon.

Stephens indicated he wants the issue on the November 2020 ballot in order to make the change in time for the November 2021 Council elections.

The Council’s next scheduled meeting had been set for August 11 at 7 p.m. But Babcock pointed out at today’s meeting that the deadline for getting any ballot question on the November 2020 ballot is August 11 at 4 p.m.

Consequently, the three made a soft decision to hold another Council meeting sooner, to get the matter on the November 2020 (presidential) ballot. As of now, that’s the plan.

Presumably the special and urgent meeting to manage a Charter amendment proposal will include the two new Council members, who are expected to be sworn in at City Hall in a socially-distanced ceremony soon.

If passed by voters, the change would be in effect for subsequent Council elections.

Watson’s and Bacon’s appointments will run through November 2021. They can run to be elected at that time if they wish.

Stephens’ seat will also be up for grabs during that election. He has repeatedly said he will not be running for reelection to City Council.

As of now, it looks possible that in November 2021, there could be not three of five seats open on East Lansing’s City Council, but five of seven.

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