East Lansing has a six-way scrum for three positions in this year’s City Council election, giving residents a chance to affirm the big changes that have come to the vibrant college town over the past four years or vote in some new blood.
The city is assured of at least one new member on the Council in January, after Shanna Draheim chose not to run. Incumbents Mark Meadows and Erik Altmann are also seeking another term. Both of them were appointed to leadership positions by the full Council — Meadows to mayor and Altmann to mayor pro tem.
Challenger Lisa Babcock, 53, an attorney, sees herself running as much against Altmann as for the open seat. She has been a sharp critic of the current city government, arguing it lacks transparency.
Babcock is incensed the city attorney had been able to misuse federal Housing and Urban Development money for his office — money that the city was forced to repay, and is outraged at how a six-acre parcel was sold on Merritt Road that was unloaded on eBay for $1.1 million.
“You can curse the darkness or turn on a light,” Babcock is fond of saying.
Babcock said few people knew about the eBay bid, which may have depressed its sale price. After site plans were approved, the new owner listed the real estate for $12 million.
“There will be no backroom deals. There will be no hand-picked bidders,” if she gets elected. Babcock had earlier worked as a Senate Democratic staffer in the state Capitol and as a journalist in Petoskey.
Meadows, 72, defended the so-called eBay sell, noting the six-acre lot had sat vacant for two decades as the city had been unable to find a buyer. In 2016, it was sold for $950,000, only for the buyer to back out and allege the property needed $3 million in environmental cleanup before it could be developed.
The new buyer, Kodiak Landarc, is getting no tax breaks and has already drafted plans for a Holiday Inn Express, a strip mall and a marijuana dispensary on the property. He doubted Kodiak Landarc could sell the property for $12 million, but would be happy if they did — since that will increase the tax value of the property. “I’d rather have it over 20 years,” he said.
“Nobody had a problem with it. If she thinks there’s some kind of backroom deal, she doesn’t understand what’s going on,” Meadows said.
Altmann, 55, stood by his record as well, particularly as the city took on the difficult task of enacting an income tax levy while lowering property taxes by 5 mills. He said that allowed the city to hire two new police officers and two firefighters, as well as pay down pension debts and put more money into parks and roads.
Going forward, he would like the city to pursue a greener agenda — installing a protected bicycle lane on Burcham Drive and mandating that parking garages and large lots include electric vehicle charging stations. He also thinks the city could install solar panels on city buildings.
Jessy Gregg, 42, is an artist and owner of Seams, a boutique fabric store in downtown East Lansing. She has served on the Ingham County Parks & Recreation board, and says the arts community needs a voice on Council after the failure of the folk festival and the loss of galleries and artsy businesses like Mackerel Sky, which is closing at the end of the year.
She’s concerned about the fate of the arts festival, whose executive director was let go last year. She wants someone who will ensure the arts stay central to the community. “I’d like somebody on the Council that has that kind of expertise — and it’s me,” she said.
Gregg also wants to rewrite the city’s zoning code to make it more practical and give fewer exemptions that allow developers to disrupt the existing community. “Right now, there’s no reason to abide our zoning because we know that it’s out-of-date,” she said.
A fifth candidate, John Revitte, 69, is a professor emeritus of human resources and labor relations at Michigan State, who said he was inspired to run for office by the city’s white-tailed deer problem.
He associates himself with the deer issue in jest — but he sees the issue as an example of where East Lansing failed to look at other communities in how to deal with a common conflict — one his background in labor relations and grievance resolution at the university would serve the city well.
“You’ve got to listen to all sides and come up with creative solutions,” Revitte said.
Revitte wants the city to consider a moratorium on new student high-rises until they can assess the long-term needs. He doesn’t think enrollment at MSU can continue to rise indefinitely. He also worried a lot of the more interesting businesses and restaurants that East Lansing needs to thrive are fleeing to places like Old Town in Lansing.
Meadows is much more likely to let development bear on market forces — and said apartment rents in the north part of the city should fall, alleviating the cost of living for students.
They are joined by a sixth candidate, a political science student at Michigan State, Warren Stanfield III, who grew up in Detroit and wrestled with the Spartans, while also serving as an intern to Rep. Cynthia A. Johnson, D-Detroit.
Stanfield, 20, said the city was aloof to the students’ concerns and did not rise up and defend them adequately during the Larry Nasser sexual assault scandal and coverup.
He also said that despite what Meadows and Altmann might say, the new construction going up, like the Hub, was junk. “It looks like it was thrown together with duct tape and glue sticks.”