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Ruth Beier on the day she was sworn in as Mayor at East Lansing City Hall. (Photo by Raymond Holt)
Under the last City Council, member Ruth Beier supported Mayor Mark Meadows in many controversial split decisions. But since becoming Mayor on November 12, Beier has been establishing a mayoral approach different from Meadows, based on her own views of how East Lansing’s legislative branch should operate.
That includes distributing among Council members certain powers that the mayorship accrued under Meadows, and indicating to staff that Beier expects more neutral advice and less advocacy to Council on development projects.
It also includes a recurring promise from Beier to ensure all written “communications to Council” make it to where the public can easily see them. Under Beier as Mayor, even a long-missing citizens’ communication has shown up.
Will it be “a council of equals”?
ELi reported that, when Beier was sworn in as Mayor and Aaron Stephens as Mayor Pro Tem (substitute mayor) on November 12, both stated a desire to approach Council more as a group of five equal members. That does seem to be playing out to some degree.
A week after the swearing-in, Council held an unusual meeting convened specifically for the purposes of deciding which Council members would serve as liaisons to or members of various local and regional boards and commissions.
At that meeting, Meadows objected to Beier characterizing this unusual approach to assignments as something new, saying under his mayorship, Council had done something similar in 2015.
But in November 2015, according to records of the agenda, the discussion about board and commission assignments happened for only a few appointments, with most of the decisions already having been made in advance out of the public eye, apparently by Meadows.
When, at the Nov. 12, 2019, meeting, both Meadows and new Council member Jessy Gregg wanted the job of being liaison to Planning Commission, rather than deciding as Mayor for the group, Beier held a vote. It came down 3-2, with Meadows and Beier voting for Meadows, and Gregg, Stephens, and Lisa Babcock voting for Gregg. Gregg was given the job.
Beier has indicated in other ways that she is aiming for more of a “council of equals” rather than keeping special powers for herself as mayor. She told ELi last week that her goals specifically include “sharing what I know with all Council members,” “distributing ‘mayoral’ functions to other council members when appropriate,” and “taking all council-member proposals seriously.”
As an example of the first goal – sharing information with the rest of Council – Beier said at her first meeting as Mayor with the Council of Neighborhood Presidents on November 25 that she was planning specifically to convey the group’s questions and concerns to all of Council. She also encouraged that group of citizens to take more control of the meetings, saying that this was not the mayor’s meeting, it is the neighborhood presidents’ meeting with the mayor, and they should treat it as such.
As an example of the second goal – “distributing ‘mayoral’ functions” – Beier has now formally assigned the mayor’s seat on the Downtown Development Authority to Stephens as Mayor Pro Tem. She has also said that she’s planning to revisit the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) appeals process which, under Meadows, gave the mayor extraordinary power to alone decide appeals.
On the third point – “taking all council-member proposals’ seriously” – Beier says she is “amenable to changing” the recently-amended agenda-setting policy. Meadows had been using an agenda-setting system that irritated Stephens and then-Council member Shanna Draheim, who felt concerns of theirs were being kept from the agenda.
Beier indicates she wants more out of staff
For years, Beier has been calling on staff presenting development projects to present a neutral pro-and-con list to Council. Additionally, Meadows as Mayor was privy to big-project negotiations before many Council members.
Beier has said she wants staff, not Council members, to take the lead on negotiations for big development deals and that she wants Council to have equal say on projects. Whether that means the deals become more or less transparent remains to be seen.
In the meantime, Beier praised Director of Planning Tom Fehrenbach last week for presenting the MSUFCU proposal in a way that included both “pros” and “cons” of the possible deal – something we’ve not often seen when Meadows was in favor of a project. (Beier and other Council members were criticized by some citizens who felt the Council voted to put the MSUFCU project on the ballot much too soon after it became public, that is, before the public could weigh in on what the ballot proposal should include.)
Beier has also pressed staff to consistently show the public, in published “written communications to Council” on Council agendas, all of what has been sent in to Council, except for obvious spam.
Knowing Beier has said this is her goal, shortly after the new Council was seated, on November 18, I pressed for an investigation of the missing citizens’ petition on court consolidation, asking why five anti-consolidation communications to Council had mysteriously not shown up in “written communications.” I had repeatedly asked Meadows as Mayor to explain its disappearance, and he said he did not know where it had gone.
The day after my request to the new Council for a formal investigation, the City Clerk’s office suddenly produced the missing petition. It was stamped that it had been received by the Clerk’s office on August 20 – three months earlier.
Asked to explain its temporary disappearance, staff has repeatedly said it had simply been misfiled.
For her part, Beier has said at Council meetings that she expects all such communications to promptly show up in “written communications” in Council agenda packets, and she has urged citizens to let her know if they think something is missing from the public record.
In a pre-election survey, voters named transparency of East Lansing’s government as a major issue for them, and Jessy Gregg and Lisa Babcock both ran specifically on a campaign of transparency, winning by margins of about 20 percent over Meadows. So far, as the newly-elected Mayor of the City, Beier seems to be signaling that she’s also serious about greater transparency.
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