Calling All Council Candidates ... Here’s the 411 on Running for Office in East Lansing

Friday, June 14, 2019, 1:10 pm
By: 
Alice Dreger

The three people who have filed so far (from left): Erik Altmann, Warren Stanfield, and Mark Meadows

Why would anyone run for City Council in East Lansing?

The five members of East Lansing’s City Council make major decisions for the people of this city.

They decide who will be the City Attorney and City Manager and determine how much those individuals will be paid. They decide how taxpayers’ money will be spent and to whom public lands will be sold or leased.

East Lansing’s Council members also decide whether to settle lawsuits like the retaining wall case, the Country Mills case, and the whistleblower wrongful termination case. They decide whether to give tax incentives to developers (and their friends and relations) and to businesses like Costco, whether to outlaw noisy air conditioners or relax noise rules for downtown establishments, whether to increase or decrease certain taxes and fees, and what the priorities of City workers will be.

Council members here also decide who among the five of them will be the Mayor, a job that these days comes with more power than ever. Council members, particularly the Mayor, determine how much, how little, and when the public will be let in on many important matters.

The members of Council have the power to change important zoning codes and approve or disapprove many redevelopment projects, and to determine to some extent the regulation of marijuana, the handling of environmental concerns, and where you can park.

Because some people are unhappy with some of what Council has decided on these kinds of issues, ELi has been getting asked, “How do I run for City Council?”

Today we explain not just the legal process but the basics of running for Council in East Lansing.

How many candidates have filed so far?

Three four-year seats on Council will be on the November 5 ballot because the terms of Erik Altmann, Shanna Draheim, and Mark Meadows are up. (The terms of Ruth Beier and Aaron Stephens will be up in 2021.)

The election is nonpartisan, so candidates do not identify by party and there is no primary.

Altmann and Meadows have now officially filed for reelection candidacy. Draheim has said she intends to.

One challenger, Warren Stanfield, has filed as a candidate so far.

What’s the deadline for filing?

Those wishing to run must file two sets of documents by July 23, 2019, at 4 p.m. These documents include nominating petitions and an Affidavit of Identity.

Both sets of documents are obtained and then filed at the office of City Clerk Jennifer Shuster.

The nominating petitions require a minimum of 50 signatures from East Lansing registered voters. Registered voters can legally sign up to three nominating petitions for this election, and you don’t have to be planning to vote for a candidate to sign her or his petition to run.

Asked by ELi what it’s important for potential candidates to know, City Clerk Shuster said, “I would emphasize that there are line-by-line instructions on the back of each nominating petition that we distribute. It is important for the candidate, or their petition circulators, to make sure they are not only filling out the petition information on the front, but also referring to the detailed instructions on the back as this can help avoid invalidating an entire petition sheet or individual signatures.”

The rigor of the filing process is a good reason to start early. That way, if you screw something up, there’s time to fix it.

But wait, that’s not all.

Michigan’s Campaign Finance Act requires very specific steps be taken to ensure compliance with the law. The State provides a webpage about campaign finance, but we also asked the Ingham County Clerk’s office to put it into even plainer English.

Elizabeth Noel, Election/Clerk Coordinator for Ingham County, explained that people running for East Lansing Council must submit a Statement of Organization within 20 days of becoming a candidate. For that, you’ll need to have a campaign treasurer and you will need to set up a bank account dedicated to your campaign.

After you submit a Statement of Organization, Noel explained, “The County Clerk will issue a Committee ID Number and, if a Reporting Waiver is not requested by the Committee, [Campaign Finance] reporting deadlines will be identified.”

There are campaign finance deadlines for this election on October 25 and December 5.

In addition, according to Noel, “Late Contributions (for contributions of $500 or more from the same person – either a single contribution or cumulative in the cycle) are required to be reported within 48 hours of receipt from October 21, 2019 to November 2, 2019.”

Feeling a little confused about all that? Good news from Noel: “Campaign Finance Training for Committees filing with the Ingham County Clerk will be held this summer to educate candidates and other filers on required forms and to provide helpful hints to comply with the Michigan Campaign Finance Act.”

In our experience, the people who work at the City Clerk’s and County Clerk’s offices try hard to help make the process of running for office straightforward and comprehensible. You can always ask them for help understanding the rules.

So, how do you actually win?

Conventional wisdom in East Lansing says that two things matter most in terms of who gets elected: name recognition and knocking doors. Door-to-door campaigning increases name recognition and also helps candidates understand what issues matter to voters.

Voters in East Lansing are often well-informed – sometimes better informed on major issues than Council candidates. We have heard from various candidates over the years that reading ELi’s reporting on taxes and finances, big redevelopment, City Council decisions, and the like have helped them know what voters are talking about.

Mailers are assumed to have some degree of impact in City Council elections, but ELi analysis has shown that how much you spend doesn’t necessarily correlate with whether you will be elected or re-elected.

Historically MSU students have made up only a small segment of the voters in Council elections. Voting is much heavier in neighborhoods with single-family homes.

Be advised, things can get pretty wild in East Lansing Council elections.

In the 2015 election – in which Altmann, Meadows, and Draheim were elected, and incumbent Mayor Nathan Triplett was defeated – we saw the Lansing Regional Chamber of Commerce launch a barrage of negative ads against Erik Altmann, a person using the fake name "Steve Meadows" filing formal complaints the Friday before the election, and more.

In the last election cycle, we also saw complaints made about the ethics of two of the candidates, Susan Woods and Aaron Stephens.

ELi looks into all these kinds of things, plus campaign financing during and after elections. Unlike other news organizations, we don’t endorse candidates. We don’t think it is our job to tell people how to vote. We are nonpartisan and try hard to bring news that we think voters would want to know.

Don’t expect to get by on what this pays.

People who take the job on City Council very seriously spend many hours a week on it. For that, they don’t get paid very much.

Council members make about $8,000 per year and whichever Council member is elected Mayor by a Council majority makes about $10,000 per year. They also get use of City-owned tablet computer for City business and they get free parking in City-owned lots and garages.

Have additional questions?

Feel free to send them our way.

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