THURSDAY, Nov. 30 — East Lansing residents have questioned the City Council’s decision to appoint new member Kerry Ebersole Singh, who is white, as mayor pro tem over incumbent Dana Watson, who is an African American.
On Tuesday, the first City Council meeting since three new members were sworn in on Nov. 14, seven of the 24 residents who spoke during public comment said Watson, a three-year Council member who served as mayor pro tem in 2021, was far more qualified for the role.
“While the person who three of you supported is in fact a talented individual with strong credentials for serving on Council,” resident Nell Kuhnmuench said during public comment, “she has never served in any capacity on a city board or commission and is only now assuming a formal role with the city government."
“Your slim majority decision to elevate a brand-new member of Council to this position appears not only disrespectful of the woman who has served tirelessly and with honor in many capacities, but it causes me serious concern that at least three of you do not recognize the implicit bias demonstrated by such a decision," said Kuenmuench, who is white.
Watson was one of the first of two Black members elected to the City Council. She and former mayor Ron Bacon, who is also African American, were elected in 2021. Ebersole Singh is white.
Kuhnmuench echoed other speakers who had criticized the move as racist.
“Learning about implicit bias in our lives and in our actions is a tough journey — a journey that likely does not have a clear ending for those of us, me included, who are not members of the groups that are marginalized in our world. And, yes, regrettably marginalized in our own community,” she said.
Ebersole Singh’s appointment passed on a 3-2 vote after newly reelected Council members Mark Meadows and Erik Altmann voted for her and Ebersole Singh voted for herself. George Brookover, who was unanimously elected the city’s new mayor just a few minutes before that, nominated Watson, but their votes were not enough. All but Watson are white.
Ernest Conerly, a Black resident and a member of the city’s Independent Police Oversight Commission, said the decision made him “wonder if people that look like me and Dana actually have a space in this community.”
“I’ve never seen any of you come to my neighborhood except for Dana,” he said. “You can’t sit up there and say that you represent us, when your representation is a representation of yourselves.”
Nichole Keway Biber said that Watson “seemed like an obvious choice.”
“My jaw dropped when I saw that Watson was not chosen — not only not as mayor, but also as mayor pro tem. I think it’s an unfortunate decision, particularly for the three newly elected Council members to be the ones who voted against that appointment. It’s a really bad look,” Biber added.
Biber and other speakers mentioned they found Meadows and Altmann’s votes ironic considering they had campaigned on bringing experience back to a City Hall that has seen an exodus of city staff in recent years. Before being elected to the Council, Watson served on the city’s planning and human relations commissions.
“She’s a very experienced person, not only in city governance, but with her work in lots of different spaces I’ve seen her in that really draws oftentimes people like me who feel like they don’t have much of a voice. She’s there and aware,” Biber said of Watson. She added that she didn’t think the move gave residents “reassurance that there’s a continuity between different elected officials.”
Attorney Jeffrey Hank said he had to address the “tension” in the community.
“You can hear it tonight,” Hank, who is white, said, citing “issues that probably aren’t going away anytime soon.”
He said the city needs to continue to bolster its transparency practices, but he also said the new Council members need to be given a chance to govern.
“I think the five of you are a great mix of people. I’m glad to have Mr. Meadows back. I’m glad Erik’s back. I hope the two of them are going to think through the lessons from their prior term, things done right, things done wrong, and do well again. I would say to Watson: Don’t let anything get you down, because you’re appreciated by a lot of people in this community.”
Farhan Sheikh-Omar, a Lansing resident who has run for public office before, also weighed in. He is Black.
“This is a city where Black people only make up 5% to 7%, but when you look up the police or traffic stops, Black people were making up about 50%. We have made many changes in this city, we have protested, and I was very proud of the city,” Sheikh-Omar said. “However, we have many people in the city who ran for City Council just to set us back three years. That cannot happen.”
“We have men in this room who are literally afraid of the word reform,” he added. “Which is crazy to me because the computers there in front of them and cell phones that they have need software updates. Why is it so hard for us to reform the way East Lansing is to be a place that welcomes everyone?”
Sheikh-Omar mentioned cases of excessive force by East Lansing police, which in part led to the formation of the police oversight commission, as well as additional reform efforts the city has initiated in the last several years, including a resolution passed unanimously in November 2020 that declared racism as a public health crisis.
He then turned his attention to Meadows, who quit as a Council member in 2020 as a protest after the Council dismissed City Attorney Tom Yeadon.
“It got to a point where you hated the reform that we wanted to make in the city, that you quit. You walked away from your job, a job that people voted you in, a job that, ironically, you ran for again and won,” Sheikh-Omar said. “I won’t call you a racist. I won’t call anybody in this room a racist because that’s not my job and I don’t like to label people. However, what I pay attention to is your actions and, for many years, sir, your actions have shown me and the African American community that you don’t value us.”
In addition to the disparity in experience between Ebersole Singh and Watson, Sheikh-Omar and other speakers also took issue with the former’s campaign. At the Oct. 27 filing deadline, Ebersole Singh’s campaign had raised $56,003.01.
“It shouldn’t take $60,000 to win a seat in this city. That’s not people donating to campaigns, that is special interest, that is outside money. It’s very shameful, let’s just do better,” Sheikh-Omar said.
Rebecca Kasen, who ran unsuccessfully against Meadows, Altmann and Ebersole Singh, was the first to speak out following the mayor pro tem vote at the Nov. 14 meeting.
“This is just racism. No one deserves it more than Dana. I’ll see myself out. A bunch of racist, old white men,” Kasen said at the time.
“When I witnessed the disrespect and the condescension being directed at Watson by Mrs. Singh and Mr. Meadows as the nominations began, I knew I had to say something,” Kasen explained the day after.
Since then, she’s continued to defend Watson, whom she called “a good friend.”
“She calls out bad behavior, including racism, and that is probably why she’s disliked by Meadows,” she said. “She is one of the most hated women in East Lansing, but she is always honest and does things with integrity.”
During the four-hour meeting Tuesday, none of the five Councilmembers addressed the issues raised by these speakers.
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