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East Lansing could expand City Council by two members, change election timing

City of East Lansing

East Lansing is weighing potential amendments to its City Charter that would allow two additional members to join the City Council and change when council elections are conducted.

The council is considering putting three ballot questions before voters this November that would revise rules guiding city governance. One of those would expand the group from its five current members to seven.

Councilmembers say the expansion would grant more flexibility around having a quorum, or the minimum number of individuals that need to be present to hold an official meeting. That would accommodate times when members resign or need to be absent due to illness or other obligations, something the city has struggled with in recent years.

At Tuesday's council meeting, Mayor Ron Bacon said the two additional members could add new perspectives and broaden the discussions in the group.

"For all intents and purposes, you are vacating power when you diffuse a large body and make it larger," Bacon said. "But I think that's a good thing.”

The council also discussed a charter amendment for voters to consider that would change when elections for the group take place from odd-numbered years to even ones.

The next City Council election is taking place this November. If the council puts its proposal on the ballot and voters approve it, the next election would be shifted from November 2025 to 2026, with subsequent votes taking place every two years.

That would align the local election with state and federal races that draw more voters to the polls, including the presidential race.

Councilmember Dana Watson said the change could also lead to higher student turnout from those attending Michigan State University.

“Giving them the opportunity to more deeply capture their thoughts on our city council makeup sounds like a great decision to me,” Watson said.

Members of the public had mixed reactions to the proposed change in year. Some argued student voters would become more engaged with East Lansing government. Others claimed the shift would encourage students who aren't well-informed on city affairs to participate, making the local race more partisan and more expensive for candidates.

Bacon called students and East Lansing's "greatest asset" and said he'd like to see a younger community member sit on the council one day. He added the city needs to do more to integrate with its student community.

"I don't really fear the student vote," Bacon said. "I think they're far more knowledgeable than we give them credit for...but we absolutely refuse to even look at or have conversations around what it means to be a Big 10 city, a leading city, and what that means going into the future."

Councilmember George Brookover was skeptical of the proposal, arguing it would increase expenses for those who want to run for council.

"Not only will it drive out students, I think it will also drive out a lot of just regular volunteer citizens who might otherwise be interested in running for council," Brookover said. "I challenge the assumption that we're doing something here that's going to benefit what we refer to as our student population."

A separate third charter amendment would change the day councilmembers are seated from one week after the election to the first meeting in January. The revision would allow the city to ensure swearing-in ceremonies take place after the vote has been certified, complying with state law.

The City Council is set to vote on bringing the three charter amendments before voters next Tuesday.

Arjun Thakkar is WKAR's politics and civics reporter.
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