East Lansing's new mayor talks COVID recovery, police reform
Ron Bacon is the first Black mayor in the city's history.
Ron Bacon became the first Black mayor in East Lansing's history after being appointed by the rest of the City Council last week.
He first joined the council in 2020 after being appointed alongside Dana Watson to fill partial-term vacancies created by the abrupt resignations of Ruth Beier and Mark Meadows. Bacon won his first city election in November when voters chose him for another term.
WKAR's politics reporter Sarah Lehr talked with the new city leader about police reform, post-pandemic financial recovery and his feelings about his historic appointment.
On East Lansing's infusion of cash from COVID relief programs
We will really try to take on some of our multi-year larger projects with some of these capital dollars. Because this may be a once-in-a-generation or once-in-ever opportunity to do some huge capital projects this time around. So, we're going to we're going to seize on it.
On racial bias in city policing
I think we're doing a lot to address those disparities. I think those same disparities kind of exist across society. ... It's kind of a sweeping issue. ... As far as law enforcement goes, they've been great participants in helping to seat our oversight commission. They revamped their ranks, adding a couple social workers and some community officers to take on some of those additional roles of being liaisons to the community,
Megan Schellong: Ron Bacon is East Lansing’s newest mayor after being appointed by his fellow City Council members last week. WKAR’s politics reporter Sarah Lehr spoke with him Wednesday, after his first meeting leading the council, about the challenges he expects in coming years.
Lehr started off by asking Bacon how he feels about being the city’s first Black mayor.
Ron Bacon: It's exciting. I’d say, initially, pretty overwhelming. But I think the realities of getting back to work — we had our meeting last night — and I think as we get back to the business of the city post-election, I think all that kind of washes away, and we get back to the work of the people. But, yes, the gravity and the size and the magnitude of things, of it all, historically, is not lost on me at all. But you just kind of … you have to get right back to work.
Yes, the gravity and the size and the magnitude of things, of it all historically, is not lost on me at all. But you just kind of … you have to get right back to work.
Sarah Lehr: What do you foresee as being your greatest challenges over the next year on the City Council?
Bacon: I think, obviously, the backdrop of the continuing global pandemic is one of them and then obviously, over everything is kind of … the ecosystem and just everything around that and how we move forward ecologically while still seeking to grow and expand and build is a big one.
Working hard on the relationship between ourselves and Michigan State University to make sure that we are partners in lockstep both from a public safety perspective, as well as from just a cooperation perspective, and then being, you know, a good part of the region and making sure we're attractive to families, young professionals and everyone else in the region, so that includes our housing stock and opportunities, restaurants, bars and our offerings.
So, it's just kind of a lot to make sure that we are that regional attraction that we've always been and a really good place to live and play.
Lehr: East Lansing is getting millions in federal coronavirus aid. What in your opinion should be prioritized when distributing that money?
Bacon: A lot of things should be prioritized. The tricky part is having to determine where the overlap is, particularly, say, the American Rescue Plan, the infrastructure bill and if the Build Back Better passes, stuff via the state, many of those things are already kind of earmarked for specific areas of use.
So just determining, you know, really planning and we're going to add some additional accounting assistance to make sure that we apply things to the right places, and we aren't redundant and don't miss out on opportunities to apply the funding and maximize that for the city. So, that's going to be a really intricate process because there are specific earmarks around a lot of the dollars and where you can use them.
And we will really try to take on some of our multi-year larger projects with some of these capital dollars. Because this may be a once-in-a-generation or once-in-ever opportunity to do some huge capital projects this time around. So we're going to we're going to seize on it.
Lehr: Is there an infrastructure project or a construction project that you think is particularly important that you would like to see prioritized?
Bacon: We’re definitely going to lean into some stuff around hardening our infrastructure against these these kind of large rain events and that kind of thing, so that's our priority.
We were making a decision last night to look at these backup valves on some of our communities where our combined sewer system particularly lies in the city — I think that's going to be a good starting point.
And then we'll do some major projects, capital projects, around City Hall, for the Hannah Center. And there's a couple more major ones that have been kind of sitting— perhaps around fire — just the really big the buildings, the library, huge infrastructure things that we've kind of put to the side or had inside of our Master Plan. We're going to bring those to the forefront while there’s dollars to address them.
Lehr: Data from the East Lansing Police Department shows officers are more likely to arrest and perform traffic stops against Black people compared to white people. They're also more likely to use force against Black people. Are you concerned about disparities in policing in East Lansing? And what would you like to see done going forward to address such disparities?
Bacon: I think we're doing a lot to address those disparities. I think those same disparities kind of exist across society. It's just, it's kind of a sweeping issue.
So, I think, honing in on … What we've done we've honed in on our entire culture and doing a cultural realignment for all of our departments and kind of ourselves as a city. We hope to even expand that out into the broader East Lansing under our declaration of being kind of an anti-racist city.
As far as law enforcement goes, they've been great participants in helping to seat our oversight commission. They revamped their ranks, adding a couple social workers and some community officers to take on some of those additional roles of being liaisons to the community, as well as working on their accreditations and building out some structures under Chief Kim Johnson to really address some of these products.
So, a lot of the surveys and things came out and a lot of the processes were already underway to kind of alleviate and assuage some of those issues, but there's there's going to always be work to do in areas of improvement.
I don't make light of it at all. But I appreciate the efforts of our department and our city in general and even our Diversity Equity Inclusion Director Elaine Hardy in kind of putting us on the right track to work through this. It took a lot of years to get here, and it's going to be some time to work out of it. We're definitely on the right track of working our way through, I'll just call them, broader societal issues around race and bias.
Schellong: That was WKAR’s politics reporter Sarah Lehr chatting with East Lansing’s new Mayor Ron Bacon. You’re listening to WKAR.
This interview has been edited for clarity and conciseness.