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Should East Lansing voters approve an expansion of the City Council?

A crowd of residents fills the Hannah Community Center seats in front of the East Lansing City Council.
Arjun Thakkar
A photo of East Lansing City Council at the Hannah Community Center. Residents attended to voice opposition to a subsidized housing project.

During the Nov. 7 general election, voters in East Lansing will decide whether they want to expand the City Council.

Supporters believe adding more seats to the legislative body would improve representation and provide more flexibility for the group. But opponents claim officials are moving too quickly to consider the change and that the expansion would put a strain on city resources.

If a majority of East Lansing voters approve the ballot proposal, the City Council would move from five members to seven.

Mayor Pro Tem Jessy Gregg supports the change, saying its long overdue.

"This is really the first opportunity that we've had to kind of calmly get something pulled together to put it on the ballot where it doesn't really feel like we're knee-jerking,” Gregg said.

A photo of Jessy Gregg from when she joined the council after the 2019 election.
City of East Lansing
A headshot of Jessy Gregg from when she joined the council following the 2019 election.

Gregg was elected in 2019 and is not running for re-election. She said she’s been thinking of the expansion since 2020, when two members of the City Council resigned after a contentious vote.

After the resignations, Gregg said even one absence would have stopped city business in its tracks.

A majority of councilmembers need to be present to move city business forward under a legal requirement known as a quorum. Under the current East Lansing charter, a quorum is defined as having three members attend a meeting.

"If any one of us had become ill, then we would be down to a council of two," Gregg recalled, detailing COVID-19's impact on the college town in 2020.

"There was obviously a lot of pressure to be healthy and to distance and to keep everything safe."

If the expansion is approved, a quorum would be defined as four councilmembers instead of three. Gregg believes seven seats makes it easier for public officials to hold meetings when members are absent for family emergencies or illness.

Increased representation is another reason for the outgoing councilmember's support. Gregg thinks expanding the City Council would encourage more debate among its members as they work towards a majority vote.

"It's too easy to get bad policy through a council of five people," said Gregg. "You only have to count on the votes of two other councilmembers, and that's pretty easy to do, frankly."

Gregg also believes the proposed expansion would ensure the City Council represents the diversity of East Lansing’s population, which includes students, young professionals and families.

“We should be reflecting all of those perspectives as part of policy," she said. "If we've got people that are too similar, then the other parts of the community get ignored. Not deliberately and not maliciously. It's just hard to legislate for an experience that you don't share."

The council voted this summer to put the proposal on the November ballot.

But Liz Schweitzer has a problem with the measure. The former East Lansing mayor and city councilmember thinks officials are moving too quickly to consider the change.

“We are an inclusive community," said Schweitzer. "We like to involve people in some of the preliminary decisions that are made, prior to the important ones coming about."

Schweitzer argues it would have been more appropriate for East Lansing to create a charter review commission to consider an overall review of city guidelines. That commission would take community feedback on possible changes, including an expansion of the council.

"I just don't understand why this was pushed through the way it was. It's not typically how we do business in East Lansing," she said.

To Schweitzer, adding two more councilmembers to broaden the council's perspectives is unnecessary, when public comments and recommendations from activist groups do enough.

"I believe that the council learns as much from the community in that regard as they would among themselves by having two more voices," Schweitzer said.

The former public official also disagrees with the notion that having a larger council would improve the attendance of its members or its ability to meet a quorum.

“Council meets only twice a month. People know what those dates are ahead of time," Schweitzer said. "I don't remember having any experience with not having a quorum.”

A headshot of MSU Law Professor Daniel Rosenbaum wearing a suit and tie.
Daniel Rosenbaum is an assistant professor at Michigan State University's law school.

Legal analysts note a city council expansion would have budget implications.

“Local governments are very resource constrained, so when you have more people, your costs will usually go up,” said Daniel Rosenbaum, an assistant professor at Michigan State University’s law school. "As your costs go up, you might see constraints in other areas of the government."

In the current fiscal year, East Lansing’s mayor and city council offices are expected to spend close to $190,000. Adding two more officials would likely add thousands of dollars in administrative and technical expenses for the city.

Rosenbaum notes local governments have other factors to consider when they think about expanding legislative bodies — adding more elected officials can ensure strong representation for residents and add more engaged citizens responding to policy matters. But it can also reduce efficiency and may give more influence to small, vocal groups and organizations.

Governing bodies in municipalities vary in size, and Rosenbaum suggests local governments take different approaches in determining their representation.

“You wonder, what is the best number, right?" Rosenbaum said. "Is there a number that captures the democratic value of a council while also maintaining efficiency?”

Voters this November will have the final say.

But if they approve the proposal, it would take some time for the expansion to occur. East Lansing would see those two additional city councilmembers join after the next election in 2025.

Arjun Thakkar is WKAR's politics and civics reporter.
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