Ask ELi: Why Don’t Voters Elect the Mayor of East Lansing?

Wednesday, January 17, 2018, 7:55 am
By: 
Alice Dreger

Above from left: Lansing Mayor Andy Schor, East Lansing Mayor Mark Meadows, East Lansing City Manager George Lahanas.

Editor’s note: Alice is not supposed to be reporting for us right now, because she has to be focused on fundraising, to get ELi to the goal of our Sustainability Campaign. (Has she not bugged you yet? Click here to donate right now.) But as she’s said before, she really comes to ELi because she loves to report for the community. So, in the interest of stopping her from driving me crazy with her pent-up reporting urges, I agreed to let her answer an Ask ELi to Investigate reader-submitted question. We know other readers have had this same question. – Ann Nichols, Managing Editor

Reader question: “I am relatively new to East Lansing, and I was surprised to read that the Mayor and Mayor Pro Tem are elected from City Council members, by City Council, and not by general election. It seems like Lansing (and other communities I've lived in before) have general mayoral elections, so I was wondering why East Lansing does this instead and if there has ever been any thought about trying the other approach? Thanks for all the great things you do!”

The background: There are two common forms of city government in the United States. One is the type we have: council-manager. In this type, the council hires a manager to run the city. The council acts as the legislative branch of local government, and the manager essentially functions as the executive.

The other type, which Lansing has, is called mayor-council. In this type of government, a direct-elected, usually-full-time mayor runs the city, acting as head of the executive branch. The direct-elected council acts as the legislative branch.

East Lansing was founded in 1907, during the Progressive Era. At that time, many cities in the U.S. adopted the council-manager form of government to avoid political corruption of the type being seen in cities run by elected mayors.

The idea behind council-manager city government was to have a nonpartisan manager who would run the city as a professional manager. History does show that many direct-elected mayors are quite partisan and are not professional managers.

Of course, in our system of government, because our city manager can be fired by our city council, there is still political influence on the manager. Managers in such situations know who their direct bosses are: it isn’t the citizenry, it’s the council.

What power does our Charter give our Mayor and Manager?

East Lansing’s City Charter determines how our government functions, so that is what set us up for the “council-manager form of government.”

According to our City Charter, “The chief administrative officer of the City shall be the City Manager. The Chief Manager shall, after consultation with the Council, appoint a City Clerk, a Treasurer, a Chief Financial Officer, and Assessor, a City Engineer, a Chief of Police, a Human Resource Manager, a Fire Chief, and any other administrative officer established by the Council….These officers shall serve at the pleasure of the City Manager.”

In other words, the City Manager has a lot of power in terms of running East Lansing.

The Council, made up of five citizens elected by voters, hires and fires the City Manager (and the City Attorney). As our reader notes, the Council also elects from its own rank the Mayor and Mayor Pro Tem (essentially a deputy mayor). A majority of Council decides who will be City Manager, Mayor, and Mayor Pro Tem.

The Mayor is given the following “duties” according to the City Charter:

  1. “Insofar as required by law, and for all ceremonial purposes, the Mayor shall be recognized as the chief executive of the City. He or she shall not have any veto power.
  2. “He or she shall authenticate by his or her signature such instruments as the Council, this Charter, or other law shall require.
  3. “He or she shall exercise only such powers as this Charter, other law, or the Council shall specifically confer upon or require of him or her, including the powers of a Mayor to suppress riots and disorderly conduct as provided by law.”

The low pay of the East Lansing mayoral position:

You can see in the salary differential between East Lansing and Lansing’s mayor that East Lansing’s mayoral position is supposed to be largely ceremonial. East Lansing’s mayor is currently paid about $9,600 per year. Lansing’s mayor is paid about $128,000. (East Lansing’s current City manager, George Lahanas, currently makes about $140,000.)

In practice in the last few decades, some East Lansing mayors have been very hard-working, essentially making a full-time job out of being mayor. The last mayor, Nathan Triplett, was known for spending a lot of time in City Hall and out in the community functioning as Mayor, and the current Mayor, Mark Meadows, is known for the same.

Why would anyone work so hard for so little money? That depends on the individual, but historically the reasons appear to be genuine dedication to the City and a desire for political power and influence.

Has there been consideration of switching to direct-election?

Over the years, people have talked about changing East Lansing’s charter to have the people directly elect the mayor. But to our knowledge, there’s never been a vote on whether to change the charter in this fashion.

 

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