Six candidates vie for three slots on Board of Commissioners

Contested primary heats up against incumbents

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Two incumbents, a Democrat and a Republican, are vying for another term on the Ingham County Board of Commissioners in the 10th and 14th districts as the commissioner in the 9th District leaves open a seat for another Democratic woman to presumably take her place.

All candidate spoke with City Pulse to on their visions for Ingham County. They all think they can do the job better than their competition. Voters decide next month.

9th District — Democrat vs. Democrat

As Ingham County Commissioner Carol Koenig leaves the board to pursue a race to be an Ingham County circuit judge, two Democrats have filed to take her place: Erin Graham and Pam Weil. In the heavily Democratic 9th District, which comprises parts of East Lansing, Michigan State University and Meridian Township, the winner of next month’s Primary Election is expected to beat Republican candidate Crystal M. Grantham in November.

Graham, 37, who has lived in East Lansing for seven years, is an assistant professor at MSU. She has a doctorate degree in Latin American history and a graduate certificate in women’s studies and is a recent graduate of East Lansing’s “Emerging Leaders” program, as well as president of the East Lansing Board of Education, on which she has served for five years.

Graham is endorsed by four county commissioners, its clerk and prosecutor and every City Council member and trustee of both East Lansing and Meridian Township, among several others. She also has a “very positive” rating from the political action committee of the LGBTQ rights organization LAHR.

“On the school board for the past five years, I learned a lot about governance, policy-making, and providing oversight to a large multi-million-dollar budget,” Graham said. “I believe that the experience and expertise I bring can help to provide high-quality services to all residents.”

Among Graham’s top priorities are balancing the budget amid significant COVID-19 induced shortfalls while maintaining quality services to residents. Her priority, she explained, would be to work collaboratively and focus on health and human services, parks, housing and infrastructure.

Her other top focus: bolstering resources at the Ingham County Health Department, which has faced challenges because of the pandemic.

“We need to continue to diversify our regional economy,” Graham added. “This will help insulate ourselves when there is another recession. The county should also explore regional approaches to infrastructure, which save money and deliver better results than projects done in piecemeal.”

Graham also vowed to disrupt systemic racism and touted her past work with restorative justice programs at local schools to reduce racial disparities in student discipline. She also believes the county should consider reallocating Sheriff’s Department funding to proactive social services.

“I ask questions and will put in the hard work needed to get the job done,” Graham added.

Weil, 57, who has lived in East Lansing for 20 years, worked as a certified recovery professional in the field of information technology. In retirement, she runs a general information technology consulting company that focuses largely on website development. She has also served as the only person of color on the county’s Parks Board for decades, she told City Pulse.

“It’s a good time for me because I’m not working a regular, full-time job and I’m in complete charge of my schedule again,” Weil said. “I’ve always been really interested in civic responsibilities and always been willing to participate on boards and commissioners.”

Her top priorities include transparency in public data and bolstering public resources for health care, mental wellness and other community programs. She also wants to make sure her IT skills are put to use through a more thorough analysis of the county’s technological capabilities.

“I believe it’s the government’s role to create a baseline that allows people to make informed choices, and good data is part of that,” Weil added. “On top of that, these conversations all need to begin and continue in a safe, secure and fear-free environment. I’m always open to dialogue.”

Weil recognized that there are “clearly issues” with police culture and would like to see more done to bolster social services that underpin psychiatric issues affecting local residents. She’d also like to see if services at the Sheriff’s Department could be redirected to other agencies.

“I’d have to see the numbers, but conceptually, yes, I support divestment very much,” Weil said. “We need police, but we also need quality, professional people that help in these other areas.”

Weil bills Graham as the “legacy” replacement for Koenig with the backing of the traditional, Democratic establishment whereas she’s a more radical, Bernie-type candidate, she explained.

“I think it’s just healthy to have two people running,” Weil added. “Erin is a decent person. She’s younger than me, and much more of an academic. I see myself as more of an operational-type person. I’m not here to get to another office. I’m here to get involved and help the community.”

10th District — Democrat vs. Democrat

A familiar primary is brewing in Ingham County’s 10th District on Lansing's east side. Democrat Bob Pena, for the second consecutive election cycle, is challenging Thomas Morgan, a Democrat who defeated Pena two years ago and is seeking a second full term on the board. The winner is expected to defeat Republican candidate Kelly Christopherson in November.

Morgan, 40, of Lansing, has had a productive two years on the Board of Commissioners — including a byline on the county’s new health services millage, which expands the existing county millage to include mental health services, as well as the new senior services millage.

He also successfully stopped a scheme to privatize jail medical services to a profit-hungry corporation with a shoddy record of patient care and led the rewrite of the county’s new ethics policy, which improves government transparency and holds officials accountable for their emails.

“Everything I’ve done has been through the lens of two considerations: helping people who need help and reforming government to increase transparency,” Morgan said. “I’ve been able to get a lot of things done, but there is still a lot more to do. We need to keep up the momentum.”

Morgan’s top three priorities for a second term are expanding health care services despite a challenging economic forecast tied to COVID-19, improving government transparency and finding other operational efficiencies by bolstering regional cooperation with cities like Lansing.

“We’ve had a lot of change with this new group of younger, liberal members who have shaken up the status quo and attempted to reset county government to make it work better for everyday people,” Morgan added. “It’s all really exciting, and I’ve been proud to be a part of that work.”

Revenue sharing payments from the state are in jeopardy, Morgan said, and it's going to get worse. By forming a more regionalized approach to community services, duplicated efforts can be reduced. “The average person doesn’t care who is doing it, as long as it gets done,” he said.

Morgan said his responsible stewardship of tax dollars as chairman of the board’s Finance Committee is reason enough for small business owners to support his campaign. And he also wants to continue taking strides toward a more racially equitable future in Greater Lansing.

“I’m glad the spotlight is finally being put on racial injustice, but I won’t be one to stand on a soapbox and puff out my chest to make sure I look woke,” Morgan said. “I’m fully committed to doing what it takes to improve, but I’m also making sure the mic is on and I’m handing it over.”

Morgan said police budgets in Greater Lansing are too high and that local departments need “serious reform.” Part of the solution is a reallocation of resources to other community services. But that also takes a coalition of support and bridge building in local neighborhoods, he said.

“I’m not one to try to make everyone happy. I think that’s impossible. I just try to keep it as real as much as I can, and I think that type of honesty, on balance, is respected,” Morgan added. “I’ve got a lot done these last two years, and think I can get a lot done over the next two years.”

Pena, 57, who has lived in Lansing for 35 years, is a licensed civil engineer. He has no prior experience in elected office but served as a board member for Capital Region Habitat for Humanity and the Capital Area Food Council. He’s challenging Morgan because he believes he has the skills to further “streamline” county government and reduce broad inefficiencies.

Pena’s top three priorities are ensuring residents have access to quality food, bolstering housing opportunities for all income levels and maintaining local roadways. He also wants to ensure local businesses are supported during and after the COVID-19 pandemic.

“A lot of times, in government, you have this duplication of resources,” Pena explained to City Pulse. “I’ve been working long enough as a civil engineer that I have some idea how to spot and correct those things, at least when it comes to transportation and infrastructure in the county.”

Pena wants to ensure rural farmers receive the support they need to grow the food-supply chain in the region while ensuring that the product stream finds its way into urban areas across Lansing. Housing opportunities are also important, as are the roads to connect them, he added.

“County government is dynamic, and it’s something that needs to be reviewed constantly,” Pena added. “If you just wrote rules and walked away, you wouldn’t need the commission. Things change, needs change. That’s the real job: Sometimes policy adjustments must be made.”

If elected, Pena said he plans to work to keep taxes and millages flat for local residents while taking a magnifying glass to the county’s overall budget and looking for ways to save money. He didn’t offer many specific suggestions for change, but said he has a willingness to learn more.

“I’m not a dictator. I’m a team player. I work with people. I listen to people. If I don’t have the answers, I’ll do my homework. I’ll think and try to figure out the root of any problem,” Pena said.

14th District — Republican vs. Republican

Incumbent Republican Commissioner Robin Naeyaert, of Mason, is seeking her third two-year term on the Ingham County Board of Commissioners, facing off next month against Republican challenger Gary Gierke. Without a Democrat challenger on the ticket, the winner takes the seat.

Naeyaert, 57, has lived in Mason her entire adult life, hasn’t requested campaign contributions, carries no endorsements and said her voting record alone makes her worthy of another term. She worked as a legislative director in the state House of Representatives for almost 30 years, working with nine state representatives and is also a Realtor, largely serving rural Ingham County.

Naeyaert also served on the Mason City Council for more than a decade, serving as mayor and mayor pro-tem, and though she is a Republican, she has refused to endorse Donald Trump.

“I think, I listen and I only form my opinion only once I’ve heard all sides of a story or an issue, I’m also not reluctant to speak my mind and stand up for my beliefs,” she told City Pulse. “While I represent the entire county, I’m also elected by the people in my district, so it’s about balance.”

Naeyaert’s largest priorities, if elected to another term, include opening her mind to a number of progressive issues, supporting senior citizens and a more judicious review of county spending.

“I also want to look at bringing back health care to rural areas in the county,” Naeyaert added. “While I’m not a fan of the Ingham Health Plan, as long as it continues to make a difference to underserved residents, I’ll continue to grit my teeth and vote for it. It’s also about compromise.”

But it’s not all compromise. Naeyaert declined to comment on whether she thinks law enforcement disproportionately targets people of color, uses the phrase “all lives matter,” and doesn’t believe that human-created climate change is a problem that warrants immediate action.

“I have an issue with singling out any race,” she added. “We’re all human. It’s a human race.”

Gierke, 55, who has lived in Mason for 25 years, is a member of the Trump-supporting “All Lives Matter” crowd, though he recognizes police discrimination. He owns a tree trimming company, served in the U.S. Army and is an active member of the County Fair Board, the Optimist Club in Mason and his local Lions Club, among other groups.

“I would like to see some changes, and if you want changes, it’s good to get off your soapbox and get them done,” Gierke explained. “My biggest priority is to help run this county much more efficiently. When it comes to county operations, I just see a lot of wasteful spending going on.”

Gierke said county employees often waste gas driving around unnecessarily, though he couldn’t point to any other specific spending problems. He also wants to protect the Ingham County Fairgrounds based on rumors that county officials might look to “sink it” sometime in the future.

“I think we also need to change some services,” Gierke added. “I know a lot of people out there are playing the system. That’s another way to help save dollars. There has to be some hard decisions made to curb costs, and some services will have to go. Times are tough right now.”

Gierke didn’t elaborate on what cost reductions must be made, but he also voiced a desire to lower taxes for residents and businesses that “are currently being taxed out of existence.” A more specific plan can only be generated after a careful review of current county spending, he said.

“I see myself as a strong leader that leads by example,” Gierke said. “I let people have input, but ultimately, it’s going to fall on my shoulders to make these decisions. I will be the guy on the board that stands up and really digs his heels in over an issue for my constituents.”

Gierke contends that Naeyaert, over the last two terms, hasn’t done enough to engage with rural residents and act in their best interests. In many cases, she’s just not visible enough in the community, he argued, noting that he’ll make a larger effort to engage with rural neighborhoods.

Naeyaert, for her part, said she has a full-time job that prevents her from going to community events on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays but is otherwise an active county leader.

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