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Photos by Raymond Holt.
Monday night’s two-hour East Lansing City Council candidate debate hosted by ASMSU revealed more about differences between candidates than the League of Women Voters’ forum or the candidates’ campaigns, based on remarks to ELi by those who attended.
The way that leaders of ASMSU (the university’s undergraduate student government) set up the debate and the questions they posed drew out points of disagreement – some sharp.
Three of those who came to listen told ELi after the event that the candidates’ performances and responses on Monday night changed their thinking about candidates.
Candidates were asked to answer questions individually designed for them.
Incumbent Mark Meadows was asked why he voted for a new contract for City Attorney Tom Yeadon (in a contentious 3-2 vote) when Yeadon’s undisclosed conflict of interest “cost taxpayers over $100,000” following a whistleblower lawsuit. That federal lawsuit centered on the illegal use of public funds to build an expensive retaining wall along Yeadon’s and his partners’ private office property.
Meadows answered that the problem arose because City staff, not Yeadon, failed to check a box on the grant paperwork indicating a conflict of interest. Meadows noted that Council settled the case and that the City had to pay HUD back but that HUD provided equivalent funding for other projects.
In his response, Meadows called Yeadon’s work “exemplary.” (Meadows did not mention that Yeadon was criticized starting in 2012 for his failure to make public required conflicts of interest and that Meadows and his colleagues voted to settle the federal case but kept the vote out of public records.)
Challenger Warren Stanfield was asked why he has never voted in an election. Clearly caught off-guard, Stanfield called the question “strange” and “weird” and said he felt “like I didn’t get a good question.” He later returned to the issue and said that, because he is only 20 years old, he has missed only one election. (He has actually missed voting in two: August and November 2018. He has been registered to vote, until recently in Highland Park.)
Challenger Lisa Babcock (above) was asked how she would evaluate requests for tax incentives for development projects. She said she would not say that she would never support “a tax break for a developer,” but she wanted them used only for exceptional projects.
Babcock said she did not want to see taxes diverted away from Ingham County, elementary and high school funding, or the District Court system (but the East Lansing schools and the courts are not, in fact, impacted by TIF).
Challenger Jessy Gregg was asked why she accepted the Lansing Regional Chamber of Commerce’s endorsement when the Chamber engaged in attack ads in 2015. Gregg said “the business of the Chamber is business” and that that matters to her as the owner of a small fabric shop downtown. She said one reason she is running is to create a better climate in East Lansing for small businesses.
Gregg said the Chamber leadership promised her they would not engage in attack ads this time around. (Gregg has been criticized by some would-be supporters for accepting the Chamber endorsement and consequently appearing on its mailer with Meadows.)
Incumbent Erik Altmann was asked why he told the Lansing State Journal that he does not support tax incentives for developers when he has voted to award developments over $74 million in tax incentives that support big redevelopment projects.
Altmann said he supports the use of Tax Increment Financing (TIF) for environmental cleanup and public infrastructure projects related to redevelopment in part because it means 75 cents on every TIF dollar are pulled from other taxing authorities (like CATA, LCC, and Ingham County) to pay for redevelopment happening in East Lansing. (More on this below.)
Because of his status as an MSU professor emeritus, Revitte was asked to identify the three greatest issues facing students. Revitte did not answer that question, clarifying that his work at MSU had focused on managing grievances. He mentioned his work on the Parks & Rec commission and on planning for the farmers market.
Disagreement ran high Monday night around the question of whether the Council has been transparent with citizens.
In response to a question to all the candidates about transparency, Meadows said the City could use more open meetings on community concerns and named the recent meeting about deer as an example of a good approach.
Meadows also said that he thinks that increasing the number of government employees assigned to “communications” from one full-time equivalent to two and a half has been “a positive move” because it has led to more production of news by City staffers. (ELi has found some of that government-issued “news” factually problematic.)
Like Meadows, Revitte supported the idea of more community forums, saying that he had encouraged that approach after the first failure of the income tax to pass at the ballot box. He noted that the second time around, after there were many outreach meetings, the income tax passed. He referred to his time on the Parks & Rec commission and working on the farmers market as examples of when community engagement has helped improve local life.
Stanfield (above) said he had spoken with the fire and police unions and that they had expressed to him concerns about whether the City is being transparent about revenue from the income tax. He said there needed to be better service to constituents and suggested that his current work as a Michigan State Senate Constituent Services Assistant prepares him well in that regard.
Altmann suggested transparency has improved during his time in office, noting that Council passed an ordinance to disclose campaign contributions when a contributor has given a Council member more than $100 and has business before Council. (ELi reported on other Council members’ rocky records on that back in 2016.)
Altmann also named the new online Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) portal and video recordings of work sessions of Council as improvements in terms of transparency. He said he welcomed suggestions for more transparency. (As ELi’s Publisher, I have recently explained the impact of the city’s new FOIA policy and catalogued the City’s transparency problems.)
On transparency, Babcock called the eBay land sale “the elephant in the room” and criticized the lack of paper trails (or lack of showing the public the paper trails). She questioned why the City notified only a handful of potential bidders about the eBay auction of public property and suggested there should have been an appraisal of the land and open notice of the auction.
Gregg (above) said transparency was a major reason she was running. She said that in two years working as a reporter for ELi, the only response she ever got from the City Manager was when he wrote to complain about an inaccuracy in one report. She called for a “deeper respect” for the Open Meetings Act and the local press.
Knowledge gaps became evident during responses to some of the questions.
By virtue of incumbency and having to some extent set the agenda of what Council has worked on, Altmann and Meadows knew much more than most of the other candidates about the specifics of East Lansing government — what has happened, what might happen, and what could legally happen.
Gregg’s years of reporting on City government, volunteer service on the Arts Commission, and efforts as a small business owner downtown enabled her to show a deeper knowledge than some of the challengers. An ELi reader who attended the event noted that Gregg's comments on expanding downtown (covered below) appeared to indicate an unfamiliarity with similar ideas put forward in the Master Plan and the emerging form-based code.
Babcock is drawing on work she has done at the State level but at this point does not have the same level of knowledge of how the City has operated.
Revitte’s volunteer service for the City has given him a degree of insider perspective, but his campaign approach has been generally to appeal to broad themes about community engagement. Monday night, Revitte referred to his career in labor relations to talk about the need for honest dialogue, including with the unions, on the pension debt challenges.
Stanfield has struggled during the campaign to respond to questions about City government issues with which he appears unfamiliar, including City debt and budgets, overlay districts, marijuana regulation, and Brownfield TIF. Monday night he sharply criticized the East Lansing government for “not helping” with responding to MSU’s new policy of flat-rate tuition or with the visit to campus by white nationalist Richard Spencer. (Meadows did, in fact, specifically respond from his Council chair to Spencer’s visit at the time.)
What about big redevelopment?
On the issue of high-rise developments, Revitte (below) called for a moratorium until more is known about how much new student housing makes sense.
Stanfield said, “I like it down here. I like tall buildings.”
Altmann said “I do think it looks cool” and said that high-rises are good environmentally and socially. But, he said, he wants to know more about what the “right kind of housing” approach is.
Meadows said Council will see a presentation next Tuesday about a possible housing study, and said he wants to see more about how the existing construction projects turn out “before we entertain more” downtown.
Babcock objected to Council overriding the recommendations of Planning Commission and people who participated in the Master Plan development in terms of maximum height.
Gregg said it made sense to think about pushing the border of the “downtown” commercial district one block north of Albert Avenue to Elizabeth Street to allow for more growth of businesses in the hopes of making rents more affordable with a “mix of forms and functions.”
With regard to Tax Increment Financing (TIF), Altmann strongly defended the Council’s record, correctly noting that most of TIF funding has been directed at rebuilding and expanding public infrastructure, but wrongly stating that TIF had “exclusively” been used in East Lansing for public infrastructure and environmental cleanup during his time in office.
Meadows also said that TIF has been limited in the last four years to “exactly” those two purposes, environmental cleanup and public infrastructure (so he was also not correct).
Gregg said she “doesn’t love TIF” and while she saw it as a useful tool in some circumstances, she is troubled by how it directs dollars away from voter-approved millages (for things like the library and trails) to support big redevelopment. She indicated she wants voters’ decisions on local taxes respected and not overturned with TIF plans.
Candidates were asked, If you received $1 million to use for the City, what would you want to do with the funds?
Altmann (below) said the “biggest return” would be to put it into the pension system, where it can earn interest and thus prevent required contributions later from being higher. He said it would be “tempting” to upgrade the Hannah Community Center, roads, or sidewalks but that he would be inclined to put it in the pensions. But, he said, he’d like to hear proposals. (In other parts of the debate, Altmann emphasized his interest in moving the City toward more green energy approaches.)
Babcock said she would use the funds for talent retention and would try to get matching funds from foundations.
Gregg said “realistically” such funds would need to go into the pensions but that she would prefer to see such money used to convert near-campus student rental housing to housing for single graduates, young couples, and young families, possibly by using a program of downpayment assistance.
Meadows said the City did just obtain $1 million from the sale of the Merritt Road property via eBay. He said he would like to see public discussions on the use of the funds but was inclined to put it into the pensions. He also liked Gregg’s idea of aiming to expand housing options.
Revitte said he would ask heads of departments and commissions to propose projects for the funding.
Stanfield first joked that he would use the funds to build a statute of Mark Dantonio but then said he would use it to pay off pensions or to put it into Parks & Rec. “We could use another park,” Stanfield said.
What one thing about East Lansing’s zoning code would candidates change?
Babcock named the requirement to put retail space on the first floor of mixed-use buildings, something she said leads to vacancies and Potemkin villages.
Gregg said the “whole zoning code” is “massively out of date” and the downtown needs expansion north, as mentioned above.
Meadows (below) said he wants to see the development of form-based code for the downtown, which the Planning Commission is currently working on.
Revitte suggested what is needed is long-term planning.
Stanfield said the City should “lean on” MSU urban planners.
Altmann indicated he wants to see the code changed to allow for 4- to 5-bedroom apartments along Bogue Street and Michigan Avenue to draw students nearer to MSU and out of near-campus houses.
How can you learn more?
The event was not taped for the public. To find out more about the candidates, check out ELi’s voter guide.
Note: To clarify Stanfield's voting record, at 10 a.m. we added the information that he has been registered to vote, until recently in Highland Park. (Where you are registered determines which local elections are open to you, so registration history matters to the question of how many elections he did not vote in.) At the suggestion of a reader who attended the debate, we also added that Gregg did not refer to the Master Plan and form-based code in her comments on expanding downtown, suggesting she's not familiar with what those propose.
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