Meet New EL Council Members Watson, Bacon

Aug 24, 2020

Earlier this summer, two members of the East Lansing city council abruptly resigned during a meeting, when they lost a 3-to-2 vote to terminate the city attorney’s contract. The application process that followed resulted in two historic appointments for the city, marking the first time people of color comprised a majority on the council.

WKAR’s Scott Pohl talked with Dana Watson and Ron Bacon about joining the council.

Council members Aaron Stephens, Jessy Gregg and Lisa Babcock chose not to renew city attorney Tom Yeadon’s contract during a meeting on July 14th. The abrupt resignations of Ruth Beier and Mark Meadows put the remaining three, who had just orchestrated Yeadon’s termination, in the position of appointing people to fill the vacancies. They chose Ron Bacon, an area manager with Genentech, and Dana Watson, a health educator with the Ingham County Health Department.

So…will their selections mean the council is now made up of five people likely to act in lockstep through the 2021 election? Watson doesn’t think so, stating "being the person that I am, dissent is something that I value.” Watson says she’s been told by Aaron Stephens, who now serves as mayor, that “it’s OK to disagree.”

Ron Bacon shares that he wants to “restore the public trust.”

Watson wants to better understand the history behind Yeadon’s removal. For his part, Bacon speculates that the decision involved some personal feelings. "I don’t think anyone comes away feeling good about that decision, regardless of the outcome," Bacon explains. "So, going forward, I want to leave all impressions out there that things are in light, under scrutiny, and under tough debate, those types of things, so that’ll be a priority going forward.”

When she resigned, then-mayor Ruth Beier not only decried the process that led to Yeadon’s termination, but she speculated that the remaining council members would go after city manager George Lahanas next. His contract is up for renewal, and mayor Stephens has spoken publicly about retaining Lahanas.

Bacon says “there’s grace in continuity,” and he’s concerned that prospective replacements are watching. “How you treat the process, how you treat George Lahanas, how you treat all these things will be a determining factor of who you’re able to recruit," Bacon continues. "Everyone’s watching. It’s a small fraternity of people who do that type of work, and our process has to be clean and fair moving forward, and it can’t be knee jerk.”

Lahanas has Watson’s support. She says “I learned a lot from George in the past when we talked about the income taxes, and I’m not seeing anything that would make me say today, at all, that I would vote to discontinue his contract.”

East Lansing is no exception to recent police department criticism, particularly allegations of excessive force. Watson backs the work being done by the city’s police oversight committee. Watson goes on to say “I am in support of doing the work that we need to do in our community to address biases, to address racism, to make sure that everyone who comes into our community to visit or that lives here is treated in an appropriate way.”

Downtown development has been a source of debate in East Lansing for decades. Next month, there will be a public hearing on the proposed new MSU Federal Credit Union building.

Bacon describes himself as “a big development person” who thinks the planning commission has done a great job. “When you stop seeing cranes, I think you better evaluate your property value for where you live at," Bacon concludes. "Seeing cranes is never negative, but we just want to do it the right way and make sure that all things are being considered and we’re looking out into the future and not being short-sighted. Particularly, MSUFCU represents the type of development that people have been wanting to do forever, so we’re right there.”

Both Bacon and Watson say they want to learn more about another idea currently being explored: expanding the council from five members to seven. It’s too late now to put that before voters this November.

The East Lansing city council meetings are being held online during the pandemic. Technical issues forced the postponement of last Tuesday’s meeting, so they will meet instead tonight. It will be the second meeting for the two newest members, starting at 7 p.m.