Ruth Beier Elected Mayor, Aaron Stephens Elected Pro Tem, Both Promising a New Approach

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Wednesday, November 13, 2019, 7:30 am
Meri Anne Stowe and Alice Dreger

Above: Ruth Beier and Aaron Stephens at last night’s meeting (photos by Raymond Holt).

At East Lansing City Hall on Tuesday evening, a newly reconfigured City Council set a tone of collegiality and promised increased transparency.

Ruth Beier was elected Mayor and Aaron Stephens was elected Mayor Pro Tem (substitute mayor) unanimously by the five members of Council.

Contrasting her philosophy to that of the last administration with Mark Meadows as Mayor and Erik Altmann as Mayor Pro Tem, Beier promised to lead “a Council of equals” and said more decisions would be made in the open, with greater reliance on staff to conduct key negotiations.

“We all have the same vote, we all have the same voice, we all have the same ways to get things on the agenda,” she said. (Agenda-setting was a point of contention under the last Council.)

Stephens seconded Beier’s stated philosophy, saying, “I’m hopeful you see a different attitude from this Council,” specifying that he wants it to be “open, transparent, communicative.”

He added, “I am excited to have a Council truly that will fight for a Council of equals that is operating in the public.”

These values, he said, are those he had been working to attain during his time on Council.

Both Beier and Stephens will hold their respective leadership positions for the next two years, when their terms will be up and city-wide elections will be held for those two seats in November 2021. (East Lansing City Council does not have term limits.)

Beier said last night that she will “retire from City work” at the conclusion of her remaining two years of service on the City Council, work that she began six years ago.

Beier and Stephens won in unanimous and unopposed elections

City Clerk Jennifer Shuster started the City Council meeting by administering the oath of office to new Council members Jessy Gregg and Lisa Babcock, as well as to returning Council member Mark Meadows, all of whom were elected by East Lansing voters on November 5.

Above: Lisa Babcock, Jessy Gregg, and Mark Meadows

Shuster then opened nominations for the position of mayor. Council member Aaron Stephens nominated Ruth Beier. No one else was nominated, and each Council member in turn voted to confirm Beier as East Lansing’s new mayor.

Beier called for nominations for the post of Mayor Pro Tem, with Council member Jessy Gregg nominating Aaron Stephens. With no one else being put forth for consideration, a unanimous Council voted in favor of Stephens.

With the gavel having been placed in her hands, Mayor Beier quickly took up the evening’s agenda.

She elicited appreciative laughter from a nearly full Council chamber by noting, “I have to say one quick thing. I am nervous and this is the first time I have done this.”

Beier and Stephens plan to lead with a new approach

Explaining how she will approach her role in the next two years, Beier said, “In general, it’s my philosophy with this kind of government, I’m going to rely heavily on the City Manager.”

She used the example of big development deals to explain what she means:

“In the past, since the first day I was elected, which was six years ago, every time there’s a development, there’s a lot of pressure to negotiate with developers — which is not necessarily bad and I think we’ve improved development that way. The problem is we [on Council] don’t all have equal opportunity to do that. We don’t have the time, we don’t have the access. So, what I plan to do, and I can only speak for myself, is [that] I am not going to negotiate directly.

Beier suggested that Council members should together “set the limitations” on a proposed project, including in terms of things like height and use of tax increment financing (TIF). Then, “We give those parameters to the City Manager and his staff, and they do the negotiations. Then if it comes back to us and they can’t meet our limits, we either don’t do it or we change the limits. But it will be all done in public.”

She said that detailed negotiations can happen in private between City staff and developers’ staff because those are professionals talking to professionals, but she wants to see Council members’ work on projects happen in public.

Under Meadows and Altmann’s leadership, big development negotiation was often done by them out of the public eye, with occasional participation of other Council members.

Beier also said, “I really want to improve our relationship with MSU.” And, she said, that’s doable now.

“They have a new president, and we I think have finally hit the ceiling on the amount of student housing we need. We’re waiting for a housing study, but you don’t really need a study to just look outside and see all the housing especially with the new development going up across from Sears. We may well have enough student housing close to campus and we know that MSU is concerned about that.”

She said when she and Stephens meet with MSU, she will “let them know that we are not intending to do any more student housing, which definitely cuts into their ability to house their own students.”

When it was his turn to speak, Meadows said he wanted to “thank the citizens of East Lansing, at least those that voted for me this time for putting me back on council.” He said he is happy with what had been accomplished in the last four years and is looking forward to working with the new Council.

Newcomers Babcock and Gregg also indicated that they are looking forward to the work ahead.

Stephens then spoke, seconding Beier’s approach to more transparent government. He said that as a first step, for the first time in recent history, Council will be making decisions about appointments of Council members to work with volunteer boards and commissions by having discussions about those appointments in an open meeting. (Council decides who among them will work with various boards like the DDA, Planning Commission, Transportation Commission, and so on.)

As Stephens noted, under Meadows as mayor, Council members expressed their preferences to Meadows privately, “and then next thing we know, there are commission assignments."

Nodding to Beier, Stephens said, “We’ve decided we want to do that in open discussion” so the public can witness the discussion and hear the Council members’ values and priorities expressed.

As he has before, Stephens contrasted his attitude to a remark made by Altmann last year in which Altmann suggested there was no point in bringing forward to a meeting business an issue that was not going to pass at a Council vote.

Said Stephens, “I don’t want to vote on things only when we know we have the votes to pass.”

Stephens said he had no problem meeting with developers in public, because “anything I say to a developer in private, I’m happy to say on the stand,” he said.

Stephens concluded by saying the Council doesn’t represent developers, and “we don’t even represent the rest of Council. We represent the people of this community and they have just as much a right to know everything we do.”



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