City Council President Peter Spadafore outlines vision for Lansing

‘Leaving it better than we found it’

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Growing up, Peter Spadafore wanted to be president of the United States. But he’ll have to settle for the Lansing City Council — at least for now. Besides, at 34, he’s still not quite old enough to take on the Oval Office anyway.

“I enjoy what I get to do every day,” Spadafore said in an interview Monday, ahead of the vote by City Council that night making him president for the new year. “Work is not a job for me. I feel what we’re doing on City Council is a service. Service is what gets me going. I want to serve the people around me the best I can with the skills I was given. That’s really what gets me out of bed every morning. That, and an Alexa alarm clock.”

Two years into his first term on the City Council, Spadafore was unanimously elected without competition. After a year as vice president, Spadafore took the gavel from Councilwoman Carol Wood — who has served as president for the last two years and plans to leave the Council at the end of her current term, her sixth.

Spadafore plans to focus the Council on the city’s budget, edge down unfunded pension liabilities and foster a more robust dialogue between the community and its elected leaders.

“It’s going to be a different dynamic because I’m a different person,” Spadafore said. “I’ve learned a lot from Councilwoman Wood, but my presidency, I think, is going to be a little bit more casual. I’m a much more relaxed person. I enjoy a little bit of humor. I think I’ll also bring a little more to the floor for discussion.”

Spadafore lives off Moores River Drive with his husband, Daniel, and their black lab, Sadie. After growing up in Delta Township and working as the “breadstick guy” at Fazoli’s, he graduated Waverly High School in 2003 and later earned a degree in social relations and policy from Michigan State University’s James Madison College.

After a failed bid for county commissioner in 2008, Spadafore was elected to the Lansing School Board in 2011. He served six years there, three as its president, before eventually turning to city politics in 2017.  His day job is as a lobbyist and associate executive director for the Michigan Association of Superintendents and Administrators.

During his free time, Spadafore likes to mosey around downtown, Old Town and REO Town. He also likes biking along the River Trail, checking emails at Strange Matter Coffee and ordering food from Tannin, Meat BBQ and Pablo’s. He’s a bit of homebody, but Spadafore said he’ll occasionally grabs drinks at Stober’s or Moriarty’s.

“I’m much more likely to enjoy sitting at home,” he added. “Surprisingly, I’m an introvert. Small talk is not my strong suit. I do go to neighborhood events, but it always takes me a few minutes to warm up to the idea of putting myself out there. I do enjoy it, but it’s definitely my default to shrink to the back. I’m working on it.”

While Spadafore’s first passion was in education, those skills have transferred well to city governance. He said his time on the Council has been challenging as he attempts to balance the priorities of Lansing’s 116,000 residents — as an at-large member, he represents the entire city —  but he has enjoyed helping build a consensus among his colleagues and a long-term vision for Lansing.

“This is home,” Spadafore said. “My family has been here for over 100 years. To me, this is about leaving the city in a better position than how I found it when I was elected. I’d like my family and the people around me to want to call this place home. The only way to do that is to continually improve by leaving it better than we found it.”

Among Spadafore’s top focus areas for 2020: A Council more directly involved with outlining the city’s annual budget. He said he wants to help to identify specific line items and their associated costs upfront rather than depend entirely on Mayor Andy Schor’s administration to single-handedly set Lansing’s financial agenda.

He also wants to view city spending through the lens of its ballooning unfunded pension liabilities. In 2006, Lansing’s unfunded pensions and post-employment benefits tallied to about 13.5% or $25 million of the city’s $184 million revenue. In the last budget cycle, that figure climbed to about 22% of the city’s annual revenue.

“That’s going to require some tough decisions,” Spadafore said. “Right now, everything seems OK. We’re actually doing all right. We’re not great, but we’re not near bankruptcy. When budgets get tight, that’s going to become a more pressing issue. It’s not immediate, but we need to start thinking long-term on those issues.”

Spadafore is also seeking additional community input and to fundamentally streamline the way the city handles its “customer service” experience, he said. He suggested a single hub for residents to interact with several city departments and services rather than scattering them across multiple different floors and offices at City Hall.

He also paints himself as a consensus builder on the Council deis.

“I like to hear all ideas, and that could cause me some trouble in the future,” Spadafore added. “Some folks have said that 5-3 decisions are good. I don’t believe that’s the case in most instances. I think it’s more important to strike a compromise. I might not always agree with everyone, but nobody should ever feel like I’m not listening.”

Spadafore also said he’d like to implement a more judicious review of tax incentives for future development. He doesn’t want any more Brownfield plans to be approved for existing green spaces — like the former Red Cedar Golf Course. Instead, any tax incentives need to be based almost exclusively on the community benefit, he said.

“The City Council needs to be more forceful in saying that we need something in it for the community,” Spadafore said. “It’s not just for the people who are going to live or work in those spaces, but development needs to provide a tangible benefit by way of something the community actually enjoys — not just a new building.”

Additionally, Spadafore said he wants to bolster public transportation options for local residents and provide a more conducive environment for the medical and recreational marijuana market to flourish. While he doesn’t want to amend the city’s ordinance on weed just yet, he said he’s open to the idea of reviewing it later this year.

“I do wish we would’ve responded more quickly to the recreational side of things,” Spadafore said. “It was a rushed experience toward the end, but I do think there’s some merit to talking more about social clubs, more microbusinesses, social equity incentives and temporary licenses for events and other things like that.”

Spadafore said he’s pondered the idea of a mayoral bid in the past, but right now is more focused on his legislative duties on the City Council. He doesn’t envision serving there for the next 30 years, but he 0said he has since decided to at least seek reelection next year.

“I want to make some changes, get some things in place in Lansing and evaluate my personal and professional life as that comes up,” Spadafore said. “Right now, I really like what I do on the Council and during my day job.  I would never tell you that anything is ever off the table. I just don’t know where my life will take me just yet.”

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