East Lansing Government Needs More Service Volunteers

Friday, August 3, 2018, 7:34 am
By: 
Jessy Gregg

East Lansing citizens interested in engaging with their municipal government on a deeper level should note there are currently several vacancies on volunteer City boards and commissions for which they can apply to serve.

Vacancies can make it difficult to conduct City business in a timely fashion. In the last year, several commission meetings have had to be cancelled or rescheduled because not enough members were able to attend to attain a quorum. Earlier this year, the Planning Commission could not act on a project due to lack of a quorum caused by vacancies. (After ELi reported the problem, people stepped up to serve.)

Since many of the commissions provide recommendations to City Council on development proposals and grants, cancelled meetings due to low attendance can mean delays for permits and grant applications.

Although some board appointments require specific skills and experience, many do not. With a few exceptions, most commissioner responsibilities only require a few hours’ commitment per month.

Planning Commission:

Planning Commission is probably the most time-consuming of the East Lansing commissions, but possibly the most important aside from City Council (which requires election). According to Planning and Zoning Administrator David Haywood, Planning Commission is currently fully served. But it is never a bad idea to submit an application before a vacancy occurs, as vacancies can happen with little warning if a Commissioner has to move or take a personal leaave.

Planning Commission generally meets twice a month for televised meetings and has as its primary responsibility providing feedback on development proposals. Major changes in proposals’ scale, architectural style, occupancy limits, and parking requirements have been made in response to critique from Planning Commission members.

Members are also the primary contributors to the City’s Master Plan, which needs to be revised periodically and is heavily referenced by developers and citizens when they engage with City Council on new developments and zoning changes.

Now that East Lansing’s new Master Plan “The Bigger Picture” has been adopted, Tim Dempsey, the Planning and Development Director, has hinted that the City’s entire zoning code is due for a massive overhaul. The Planning Commission will likely have a primary role in that process.

Other Commissions:

The Transportation Commission is also an important board when it comes to development proposals. It evaluates traffic studies in terms of the needs of drivers, pedestrians, and bicyclists, and advises Council as to the impact that future development might have on existing traffic patterns. Parking concerns are also evaluated by this commission.

The Parks & Recreation Advisory Commission reviews the City’s Parks, Recreation, Open Space and Greenways Plan and makes recommendations regarding capital improvements and fees within the East Lansing Parks & Rec system. The group evaluates proposals such as those for DNR trust fund grants and applications for project funding out of the Ingham County Parks and Trails Millage.

East Lansing’s Zoning Board of Appeals evaluates requests for zoning variances and works to resolve zoning disputes. Unlike most East Lansing Commissions which are advisory to Council, the Zoning Board of Appeals is the final authority in zoning variance requests.

There are also several commissions with narrower focus, including the Historic District Commission, which works with property owners in designated historic districts.

The Seniors’ Commission is concerned with quality of life issues for seniors in the East Lansing area, and the Commission on the Environment works with the Department of Public Works and advises the City Council in policies to make East Lansing more environmentally friendly.

The Arts Commission evaluates art submissions under East Lansing’s percent for art ordinance, which mandates that large redevelopment projects must dedicate 1% of their budget, up to $25,000, for public art on their site or donate the equivalent amount to the public art fund. This commission also allocates East Lansing’s Arts and Cultural Grants. (Disclosure: I serve on the Arts Commission. I find it very enjoyable, and one of our commissioners always brings snacks.)

The Arts Selection Panel is separate from the Arts Commission and only meets when there are public art proposals that need to be evaluated, so it might be a good fit for people who can’t work on a commission with monthly meetings.

The Michigan Avenue Corridor Improvement Authority also meets as needed but has more specific membership requirements than other boards.

Vacancies anticipated:

Eilis Seide, Assistant to the City Manager, tells ELi she is going to be "looking for a great new group of students on my University Student Commission for the fall. Their term is not yet complete technially until Sptember 30 and we will begin looking for new members at that point." If you are an MSU student or know one who might want to serve on this commission, now is a good time to get an application in.

To learn more about vacancies on East Lansing boards and commissions or to download an application, visit the City’s special page on vacancies. Note again that even boards and commissions which are currently full might soon have a vacancy open unexpectedly, so it is never a bad idea to submit an application for any service you are willing to perform.