Lansing Charter Revision Commission candidates doubt they can directly address issues of inequality

But altering the Council and how boards and commissions are appointed might help, they say at NAACP forum


FRIDAY, April 19 — Revising Lansing’s City Charter to address “disparities in access to resources and opportunities” is unlikely, said most candidates at a Revision Commission forum yesterday sponsored by the local NAACP chapter.

But some suggested ways such access could be addressed indirectly.

Seventeen of the 36 candidates in the May 7 special election appeared at the session at the downtown branch of the Capital Area District Library.

The session, moderated by Delta Township Trustee Fonda Brewer and attorney Melvin McWilliams, started with asking the candidates how they would “address disparities in access to resources and opportunities among different communities within Lansing.”

Most said they didn’t see how the charter could directly address that issue, but a few mentioned reorganizing the City Council’s ward-based representation system as a step toward alleviating those disparities.

Justin Sheehan was in the former camp.

“The charter does not regulate how resources are allocated,” Sheehan said. “It regulates how authorities are made, how decisions are made for those resources and who is making those decisions.”

Corwin Smidt, a political science professor at Michigan State University, agreed, noting that “institutions do not solve problems, they prevent problems.”

“Some people think that more equity will be given with more wards, but there's no evidence of that,” Smidt said “When we have wards, you have eight or nine gerrymandered districts, and you have one person working for just one little community."

“These are social problems that we don't have institutional solutions for,” Smidt said.

Lori Simon agreed that “the question doesn’t fall under the purview of the charter.”

“But when people have a lack of access to resources, they become disengaged,” Simon added, noting that it was important that the elected commissioners "meet people where they are” and help educate the community on how they can become more engaged in the process.

Heath Lowry contended that “this is a charter issue.” He said a move toward more ward-based Council seats would make it more affordable for candidates of varied backgrounds to run, whereas at-large elections typically cost much more.

“Policy decisions are the result of institutional decisions, first and foremost. So, each of these decisions, as far as asset allocation goes, are made by people who have the power,” he explained. “We need to build an institution where these rooms of power are representative of the people of this city.”

Stephen Purchase said one way of addressing disparities could be to alter the process by which the mayor and Council vet and approve board and commission members.

“This was a question the last charter commission grappled with. Part of their answer was to set up some robust city boards and commissions where there are more opportunities for residents to engage in the lower-level functions of government and have their voice heard,” Purchase said, referring to when the charter was created in 1978. “A place to start thinking about this is in modernizing our boards and commissions and ensuring that they’re places for true dialogue.”

Layna Anderson agreed.

“I've heard that it's difficult to be nominated for the boards. A lot of things have to be chosen by the mayor, and there are people with expertise in a variety of fields that are not able to participate. We need to get rid of those barriers,” Anderson said.

Liz Boyd was firm in saying she didn’t have an answer.

“I’m approaching this from a very open-minded position, and I want to do the research,” she said. “I know that some of my colleagues up here have already said what they like and what they don't like. That's not Liz Boyd. That’s not what you’re going to get if you elect me.”

Candidates were asked to indicate whether they supported reducing mayoral powers in favor of hiring a professional city manager to oversee the city’s day-to-day operations. In a city manager format, the Council would have the power to hire and fire the city manager.

Simon, Anderson, Tim Knowlton, Purchase, Smidt and Muhammad Qawwee indicated a preference for current system, in which voters elect a mayor to run the executive branch, appoint department heads and a few other posts, subject to Council approval, and maintain veto powers.

Knowlton said having an elected mayor was “more democratic,” adding that he was “totally opposed” to a change.

“In fact, I would oppose and vote against a charter that eliminated the elected mayor in favor of a city manager,” he added.

Simon agreed. “I'm in favor of strong mayor model, but you have to have a strong mayor for that model,” she said. “You don't have to dismantle an entire system to have good leadership. That's called an election.”

Purchase said, “If you want to move our city forward and not just maintain what we have, I think a mayor is more likely to have that vision and move us in that direction.”

Anderson agreed with some of her colleagues who saw more value in allowing the people to elect a mayor every four years. But, she said, “We need to peel back some of the mayor's powers," pointing once more to the appointment process for boards and commissions as an example of how the charter commission could do so.

Smidt said he wanted to “stress that the change is not worth the cost.”

“What matters is what's going on in the city right now, and I gotta tell you, I think the city needs leadership more than management. Whether that's from our current mayor or not, that gets solved through elections,” he said.

Dedria Humphries Barker said, “People should elect their CEO, which is the mayor,” although she said that the “job is probably too big for the mayor.”

Of the 17, Jesse Lasorda was the most open to shifting to a city manager.

“We're doing the same thing and getting the same results. It’s time for a change, and if that involves a city manager, then I'm all in for that. If that involves maybe having a City Council with a better balance of power, I’m open to that as well,” Lasorda said.

Ted O’Dell, who served as Beaverton’s city manager in 2000, said the city “absolutely needs a city manager.” However, he added that a change there wouldn’t necessarily be “adversarial.”

“You can have both. It's a collaboration,” he said. “If I were the elected mayor, I would want that tool in my toolbox, a professional city manager.”

Most of the candidates fell somewhere in the middle, though. 

“For me, this is really a values question, and that comes back to which is the most democratic,” Randy Dykhuis said.

“I don't believe your system is inherently better than the other one,” Lowry added. “It's all about the nitty-gritty details around that structure of power.”

Julie Vandenboom said she believes residents are “evenly split” on the matter.

“I'm not sure where I fall,” she said. “Even if we stick with a strong mayor, I want to see the Council have a little bit more of a say on boards and commissions. I think we need to balance the power better no matter which route we take.”

Candidates were asked if they would support altering the number of Council seats or reorganizing the ward system. In Lansing’s present format, there are four ward-based representatives and four at-large seats.

Joan Bauer, Boyd, Purchase and Qawwee preferred to maintain the Council’s current configuration.

“I think there's a lot of merit to at-large seats,” Purchase said. “If everything is wards, you have one representative you can count on. If you're on that one person’s bad side, you’ve lost your voice on Council.”

“I’m personally against expanding wards,” Qawwee said. “One of the things that I hear right now is that Lansing is shrinking. And we're trying to grow our community.”

In his view, the charter commissioners should take a step back on that issue “until we can see growth on a continual basis.”

Some candidates mentioned adding a ninth ward seat to prevent a Council deadlock, but Boyd said, “That's not a bad thing,” she said.

“There are some times when you don't want things to happen,” said Boyd, who was former Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s press secretary “And there are some things happening in this city right now that are not happening. And I personally think that's not a bad thing." She didn’t elaborate.

Bauer, a former at-large Council member, said she “always felt like she represented everyone in the city.”

Anderson, Knowlton, Lasorda, Lowry, O’Dell, Rice, Vandenboom and Ross Yednock indicated a desire to expand the number of ward-based seats.

“There should be nine Council members,” Knowlton said, “and at least five of those should be elected from wards. Beyond that, I'm frankly agnostic. I can see some benefit potentially of at-large seats. On the other hand, I would not necessarily object to nine council people elected from wards.”

Said Rice, “We need to maintain good access, which might mean reducing the area that someone represents so that they will be more likely to respond" and hence expanding the Council.

O’Dell, who also supported a ninth seat, floated the possibility of eliminating at-large positions because “you run the risk of everyone being elected from the same neighborhood.”

Though Anderson noted that she wasn’t “married to certain numbers,” she, too, saw merit in adding more wards and a ninth Council position.

“I've realized since I started running for office that it’s really hard to run for an at-large position — it's just not accessible to a lot of people,” Anderson said.

Yednock said it costs around $15,000 to send mailers district-wide. 

"I know because I've tried, and I don't have the money," he said, adding that adding more wards would cut down on those costs and yield "a more representative" City Council. 

Smidt and Simon both said they thought the Council needed to have an odd number of members, with Smidt noting that he would support a ninth at-large seat.

(This story will be updated with a link to a video of the event once the NAACP posts it.)

Charter Revision Commission, Joan Bauer, Stephen Purchase, Liz Boyd, Ted O'Dell, Corwin Smidt, Tim Knowlton, Dedria Humphries Barker, Lori Simon, Heath Lowry, Justin Sheehan, Layna Anderson, Jesse Lasorda, Randy Dykhuis, Mitch Rice, Muhammad Qawwee, Ross Yednock, Julie Vandenboom, NAACP, candidate, forum, election, Lansing, politics, municipal, local, wards, city, representation, equity, mayor, city manager


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