East Lansing voters will elect two city council members next Tuesday. The three candidates for the council agree on the ballot proposals that would create a new city income tax and reduce property taxes: they all plan to vote ‘yes’ on both. They differ, though, in that two of them are incumbents, each seeking a second term in office with records to run on, while the third is a 21-year-old political science and pre-law major at Michigan State University.
Susan Woods and Ruth Beier were both elected for the first time in 2013. In 2015, Beier was chosen to serve as mayor pro-tem. The Michigan Education Association economist has been pushing the city to pay closer attention to its growing debt the entire time she’s been on the council, moving closer two years ago, she says, with the elections of Mark Meadows and Erik Altmann. Now, she sees the two ballot proposals as a move toward addressing its obligations to retirees. "Before that, it was pushed to the back of people's agenda. Now, everybody understands that we just don't have enough revenue to run the city," Beier states. "When I started, I didn't realize quite how bad it was. I thought that there was something that we could do in the four years that I've served so far, and there hasn't been, so it's a longer term problem."
Aside from serving on the council, Susan Woods is best known for founding and running the East Lansing Film Festival. She says she began her service four years ago with simple goals. "To tell you the truth, I was not a political animal," says Woods. "I kind of was thrust into this situation, so my goals were essentially to try to help the community and also to make the city more beautiful and to promote the arts. I think that those things, I did accomplish."
Hoping to unseat one of the incumbents is Aaron Stephens, who says the council needs a new, perhaps younger, perspective. Stephens is concerned with development, or the lack thereof, in East Lansing. If elected, he wants to talk with developers, including those who have given up on projects like the Park District and Center City projects, to see how to get things moving.
Stephens would also push for sexual assault prevention in the city with ideas like a bystander intervention program with businesses.
The native of Rochester moved to East Lansing as an MSU freshman, and he’s working to convince voters that at 21 and a college undergrad, he won’t leave East Lansing during a four-year council term. He calls it a non-issue. "I love local government. I think it's the most effective form of government. It's where you can create the most change," Stephens declares. "When I moved to East Lansing, I immediately immersed myself in the community. I joined the Human Relations Commission; I was on the Community Advisory Board and I volunteer at the retirement center at Burcham Hills. I love this community. I can commit to you that, win or lose this election, I'm here and I'm not going anywhere."
If Aaron Stephens wins a seat, the council will lose an incumbent, and Stephens commends both Beier and Woods for their service while declining to say which he hopes to knock off.
Beier says she thinks Woods would continue to be a good council member, but she isn’t making an endorsement. Woods has worked with Stephens on the Human Relations Commission and describes him as eloquent and hard working, but says she would like to see the current city council continue, a nod for sticking with Beier.
One interesting endorsement has been made by Sam Singh, the Democrat who serves as minority leader of the Michigan House. Singh spent ten years on the East Lansing city council and one term as mayor. He has endorsed Stephens for the council, while declining to say which of the incumbents he hopes will stay.