Monday, November 30, 2020

Your guide to the 2015 East Lansing City Council candidates

November 1, 2015
<p>East Lansing City Hall on Aug. 29, 2015. Courtney Kendler/The State News</p>

East Lansing City Hall on Aug. 29, 2015. Courtney Kendler/The State News

Photo by Courtney Kendler | The State News

East Lansing City Council elections will take place Nov. 3 with three seats up for vote. There are six candidates and only one incumbent running.

The candidates have addressed a number of issues during campaign efforts including the relationship between permanent residents and students, development in East Lansing including what the downtown should look like and what to do about the vacant buildings on the 100 block of Grand River Avenue near Abbott Road.

Candidates also discussed the ordinance that has the potential of banning recreational use of roofs that was deferred by council over the summer, the perception that students are rushed to sign a rental lease too early for the following year, problems with alcohol abuse on college campuses and a number of different issues.

Erik Altmann

Altmann is a psychology professor at MSU and is currently a member of the East Lansing Planning Commission.

He said he is running for East Lansing City Council to take on two key issues, the first being the "blight" in downtown on the corner of Grand River Avenue and Abbott Road and the second being the city's finances.

Relating to finances, Altmann said taxes are very high in the city, which is impacting everyone as landlords pass those costs on to renters.

Although taxes are high, the city doesn't seem to have any money to fix infrastructure due to the fact that too few people are carrying the cost of running the city, Altmann said.

He said the city needs to fix the roads, which are falling apart, and the sewers, which are backing up into residential basements and lowering property value. He also said city parks and playgrounds have not been properly maintained.

"I love East Lansing, but the place is falling apart and the current City Council let us down," Altmann said. "Our taxes are high and our infrastructure is decaying and we gotta do something about it."

East Lansing will become a place students will want to live post-graduation if infrastructure and finance problems are fixed, Altmann said.

In addition, Altmann said City Council could do a better job listening to the community and that the city offers a range of expertise that could offer input if listened to. He said council members may not always be the most knowledgeable about every subject or issues.

"The easiest thing to do, and it's actually pretty easy, is for council members to have a better attitude than they have (had) with respect to the input of the community," Altmann said.

On the relationship between students and permanent residents

Altmann said he isn't sure there is really an issue between students and permanent residents due to the fact that nobody moves to East Lansing if they don't like student, but there are a few things that can be done as far as housing policy goes to help relieve pressure between the two groups.

"There is a potential of mismatch for lifestyles in some neighborhoods around downtown and MSU and I think we can do things to create more affordable apartment style student housing close to campus," Altmann said.

He said creating this type of living space close to campus would "relieve some of the pressure at boarders of student rentals and owner-occupied neighborhoods."

In addition, Altmann said the Community Relations Coalition would be a good venue to build relationships between students and permanent residents, but the city can't make this happen by force.

"You can't force a relationship that doesn't make any sense," Altmann said. "If people just want to come here to go to school, then they should be allowed to do that. We shouldn't force people to interact with the community."

On downtown East Lansing and development

"Downtown has been on a long, slow slide for the past 30 years, which continues to this day as City Council has not had much success trying to reverse that," Altmann said.

In order to reverse this slide, Altmann said it is important to understand the barriers to entry stopping businesses from opening in the downtown. Altmann said he speculates the barriers could high rental rates or unnecessary regulations, but more research must be done.

He described the vacant buildings on the 100 block of Grand River Avenue near Abbott Road as a "blight" and said that the city needs to publish a history of everything that has happened during the past 15 years with properties and why the buildings remain vacant.

If a developer can't understand what is going on with the property they won't touch it, Altmann said.

The next step will be to get the properties into the hands of a developer with the funds to build something, Altmann said. It is necessary to hire outside legal council to advise the city on options as far as what can be done to get the process moving, he said.

"There are steps we can make to get the process moving," Altmann said of the issue, which he called both embarrassing and costly to the city. 

On the roof ordinance

Altmann said the roof ordinance is "ridiculous" and that, unless there is a demonstrated need for the ordinance, people should be able to do what they like.

On the rush to sign a lease

Altmann said this is a tough problem because if you enforce a date in which leases are not allowed to be signed before then landlords will keep waiting list, and this wouldn't really solve the problem.

It might make sense to move the deadline earlier so lease signing doesn't come at the same time as midterm exams, Altmann said.

When asked if freshmen are given an adequate amount of time to get to the know the community before having to sign a lease he said the answer is no and the solution is to continue living on campus.

On alcohol abuse on college campuses

"It's a cultural issue and I don't know how you solve a cultural issue except through cultural change," Altmann said.

Too many bars are open until 2 a.m., which creates a "flood" of people into the streets at one time is an issue East Lansing faces relating to night life, Altmann said.

He suggested staggering closing times of bars.

Shanna Draheim

Draheim has lived in East Lansing for 11 years. She said she "fell in love" with the wonderful community, charming neighborhoods and MSU as an anchor of the city while she was a student at MSU.

"We are at a pivotal moment for the city's future and there are challenges of structural investment and pension liabilities that need to be addressed," Draheim said.

She said she envisions East Lansing being a truly world class university town.

Draheim has a background heavy in environmental sustainability. She is currently a board member for Michigan Energy Options and was the commissioner of East Lansing Environmental Commission from 2005-12. She helped develop the city’s climate sustainability plan as part of the commission. Draheim also worked for the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality as a Great Lakes restoration specialist and as an environmental protection specialist at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

She said she would like to use this background to help bring recycling to multi-family complexes in the city that lack on-site recycling. Working  on bringing improvements in the operation of the city's fleet and the types of vehicles purchased as a council member would also be a priority, she said.

Working with landlords on environmental sustainability issues is also be something Draheim would like to take on. She would like to see larger recycling bins and smaller garbage bins throughout the city to help residents learn how what to do with materials.

"The City of East Lansing is in a unique position, particularly as a college town, to really be a leader in climate change and what local governments can do," Draheim said.

Draheim supports the idea of having a representative from ASMSU at council meetings.

"When people have interaction and they get to know each other, information flows," Draheim said.

On the relationship between students and permanent residents

"Relationship building is really important," Draheim said. "It goes both ways — it's not just having students understand who the permanent residents are, its' how the permanent residents can remember who the students are and all the energy and vitality that you (students) bring to us too."

Draheim said the city needs to find ways to have students and permanent residents work together on projects and policy issues. She also suggested tapping into "student brain trust" because students are reading current literature on a lot the topics the city struggles with. Giving students the opportunity to work with the city would also provide them them critical job experience, Draheim said. 

"If permanent residents understand you guys (students) are our partners, you guys are adults and we want to engage and partner with you, and students understand the same then I think this 'culture clash' isn't a big deal," Draheim said.

Engaging professors from MSU to work on city issues would also be an asset to the city, Draheim said.

On downtown East Lansing and development

Draheim said there is an increasing demand for downtown housing, commercial ventures in the downtown and people wanting to be in the downtown. This leaves the city with a huge opportunity at its door step especially with great assets already in place to build, Draheim said.

She said the first step in pushing the downtown forward is to articulate the vision for downtown. Once the city has a sense of where it wants to go and grow the planning follows from there, Draheim said. City Council needs to work on policy to bring the types of businesses residents want in the downtown.

Draheim said she would take a "why not" approach to development.

"I think it's the difference between if we are going to be forward looking and little bit aspirational and approach development as a sort of why not," Draheim said. "We have set the vision, why not. if it conforms with the plan then let's go. Instead of a why, why are we doing this?"

In addition, Draheim said she believes student living belongs in the downtown because of the fact that without students in the downtown there is a lack of vibrancy. However, she said she would not limit student living to the downtown.

"I think it (living in the downtown) is better for students," Draheim said. "I think there is a better quality of life there."

On the roof ordinance

Sometimes the council is quick to jump to an ordinance, Draheim said.

She said the recreational use of roofs in the city "maybe has been a problem," but she isn't sure if it requires an ordinance or if she would have supported it when discussion among council was on going.

On the rush to sign a lease

Draheim agreed with other candidates that the rush to sign a lease is a tough issue and suggested looking at best practices of other communities as well as reaching out to landlords to see what some of the options they may be willing to work with the community on.

On alcohol abuse on college campuses

Draheim said alcohol abuse on college campuses is a health and medical issue. The city should provide education as well as community liaisons to work on the problem, she said.

She also said that the types of establishments in the city have an impact.

"Having a place that is a mix of undergrads, graduate students, families, adults and working adults, there is a different culture vibe in those places as it's related to drinking and drinking behavior," Draheim said.

Mark Meadows

Meadows was the on council from 1995 to 2006 and was mayor for eight years. He was elected as state representative for the 69 District to the Michigan House of Representatives, serving in that position from 2006 to 2013. He is a member of the East Lansing Housing Commission.

He said his experience can help move the city forward to achieve its rightful place as a diverse and economically stable 21st century city with strong relationship ties to its neighborhoods, regional partners, its citizens and the students who attend MSU.

Meadows said decision-making by the council is being questioned by some citizens and that he was careful to work from the bottom up instead of the top down during his time on council. He would like to bring this practice back to council. He said he would also work to increase transparency of decision-making.

"I believe I can make recommendations as to what has happened in the past and how we have dealt with that to make sure we have a better balance in the community and a better support for the decisions made by the City Council," Meadows said.

Meadows said he takes issue with the university closing campus to political campaigning. It means those running for public office can no longer go in the dorm buildings or register students to vote in the city, he said.

"The natural result of that restriction is to make it harder for students to make it to be adequately involved in community affairs or even knowing that there is an election or how they can choose candidates to vote for if they do register here," Meadows said.

Meadows said the city and university need to discuss ways to allow political campaigning while keeping students safe.

On the relationship between students and permanent residents

"It's a lifestyle issue mostly in our community for permanent residents who may have regular jobs and may also have children who may be awaken at night as students walk by," Meadows said. "There's no evil involved in this. This is just a lifestyle issue that is dealt with in the community."

Meadows said there have a been a number of ordinances passed, such as ones relating to noise complaints,over the years that have helped null this lifestyle issue, but the city needs to continue working with students and the Community Relation Coalition.

Re-education of the existence of the housing fair, the Community Relations Coalition and the University Student Commission each year, as the city brings in six to eight thousand new student residents every year, is necessary and will help further the relationship between students and permanent residents, he said.

Meadows said students are part of the community and issues such as political campaigning being banned from campus lead students to believe they are not.

He also said students should be allowed to live where they choose because of the fact that they are part of the community and that the city shouldn't appropriate areas for student living.

"I want our community to be fully integrated by all ages and all income levels and all levels," Meadows said. "What tends to happen is that we identify areas appropriate for student housing and you end up with a student ghetto and that really isn't good for the community. Students really create a vibrancy in the community."

On downtown East Lansing and development

Meadows addressed the vacant buildings on the 100 block of Grand River and said the property will be redeveloped at some point. He said he would like to see the buildings torn down as soon as possible because they are a sore spot for so many residents.

Meadows said the the city needs to work on policies to entice MSU students to stay in East Lansing after graduation. A creation of jobs is necessary before that can happen, he said. 

The city needs to have a welcoming approach to developers and ensure developers are made aware of the council's decision on potential projects as quickly as possible, Meadows said.

On the roof ordinance

Meadows said an ordinance is not the way to address the safety concerns that come with recreational use of roofs and that the city should work with landlords on this issue.

On the rush to sign a lease

Meadows said the rush to sign a lease is generated by landlords and that there is currently no real answer to the problem, but the city should be working with ASMSU to find one.

On alcohol abuse on college campuses

"It's the city and the university's role to address the problem and not just here, but at every college community," Meadows said.

During his time as a representative Meadows sponsored House 4393, which allowed for medical amnesty for some incidents involving alcohol and minors.

Meadows said there are currently too many minor in possession tickets being written in the city. A lot of that is state statue driven, but the city can deal with the issue of underage drinking differently, he said.

"I think we can loosen up a little bit in terms of that and I would rather see us take a kid home than write him a ticket," Meadows said.

Steve Ross

Ross graduated from MSU in 2008 with a degree in political science. During his time as a student, he volunteered on the election campaigns for John Kerry and Barack Obama. In 2009 Ross moved back to East Lansing and started his own business, SMR Strategies, a political consulting firm that works with progressive candidates running for public office. He is a member of East Lansing Kiwanis Club and has overseen voter registration and education on MSU’s campus.

Ross said he would like to see a change in the way business is done in City Council and that means making neighborhoods a top priority, fixing the city's broken and aging infrastructure, supporting smart development, providing more transparency, taking care of the vacant buildings on the 100 block of Grand River, seeking solutions for top problems from people in our community and bringing our Spartan neighbors to the table.

Ross supported the idea of having a representative from ASMSU at City Council meetings.

He also suggested the idea creating an ethics policy for city council in order to provide more transparency. He said he like to see campaign funds become more transparent.

"I do think the public has the right to know if the developer is giving you campaign money and you are giving tax subsidies to them. People have the right to know," Ross said. "They shouldn't have to do that research. It should be out in the public atmosphere for everyone to kind of see."

On the relationship between students and permanent residents

Ross said he doesn't think most students will want to invest in their neighborhoods because they are only living in their homes in East Lansing for one or two years. He said students and permanent residents need to "find ways to coexist."

On downtown East Lansing and development

Ross said he is a big believer in building up instead of out. He also said new housing in the city is usually too expensive for most students. The city needs to get affordable housing for students downtown or close to campus for students and move students out of the neighborhoods where they may not fit in or where residents don't feel comfortable having them, he said.

Ross said he wants students in apartment complexes downtown, but also to diversify these complexes so young professionals and seniors can live there as well.

Ross took on the issue of the vacant buildings on Grand River Avenue near Abbott Road and said the city needs to lay out the history of the buildings because the issue has been on going for 14 years and has built up confusion.

He said he wants to have a dialogue between the city and residents about the problem. The city needs to know what is privately owned and what is publicly owned, Ross said.

The city needs to hire outside legal council to figure out what options there are to solve. He mentioned eminent domain or a dangerous building declaration may be solutions the city could use.

In addition, Ross wants to bring diverse businesses to downtown so young professionals have a place to shop, but also work in East Lansing.

On the roof ordinance

Ross took issue with the fact that the ordinance that would have banned recreational use of roofs was discussed by council over the summer while most students were away and couldn't voice their opinions.

Ross said he is not in support of the ordinance.

"I don't support that and I believe that people should make their own mistakes. I don't mean falling off roofs, but we can't tell everyone what they can and can't do all the time," Ross said.

On alcohol abuse on college campuses

Ross said the issue of alcohol abuse brings forward a number of issues the first being the safety and well-being of the students and the second being how can the city attract businesses with a bad reputation.

"How do you bring in a business when you are known for couch burning, you are known for vomiting on the sidewalks? It is hard to do it," Ross said.

He said it is on landlords to provide education on how much is too much to drink and alcohol related issues to their residents.

He suggested having tenants signing a document saying they have read and understand materials related to alcohol education.

Jermaine Ruffin

Ruffin graduated from the James Madison College at MSU with a degree in social relations and policy and has lived in East Lansing for 15 years. Ruffin was an urban revitalization analyst for the Michigan State Housing Development Authority and is currently a place-making policy specialist.

He said he is running for East Lansing City Council because "all of the great things in his life" happened in East Lansing and he wants to give back. He said the city is at a pivotal moment and it needs a council representing the whole city and not just part of it.

Ruffin said he is in favor of having an ASMSU representative at City Council meetings and that he wold like to bring a diversity to the council the city has never seen.

"Part of what I am trying to do is speak to the history of East Lansing. East Lansing hasn't had an African American elected to council in the history of the city," Ruffin said. "For me that is a part of something I am trying to change."

Ruffin said he would like to engage students to the point where East Lansing is a viable city for them to live and work post-graduation. He believes keeping students in East Lansing after graduation is a way to keep talent and ensure growth for the city.

Ruffin cited the fact that many students have graduated from MSU and gone on to build successful businesses outside of East Lansing. He said he believes the next Dan Gilbert — founder of Quicken Loans Inc. and an MSU alumnus — could be on campus right now, and that economic and community growth can be achieved through retaining students and keeping their success local.

On the relationship between students and permanent residents

Ruffin said the city will only get better for students if they demand better and that showing up to city events and voicing opinions is truly what gets the city moving. He said he would like to expand the city's Community Relation Coalition program to possibly have ambassadors to students in every dorm building with resources on city issues like housing.

He said students should be able to live anywhere they feel at home or can afford in the city and that they shouldn't be pushed to one particular area of the city.

"There shouldn't be anywhere students can't live," Ruffin said. "To want to put students in a particular area of the city is the wrong way to do it because that signals to them that they are not a valued part of the entire community."

On downtown East Lansing and development

Ruffin said in order to create a downtown with diverse housing options and unique restaurants for everybody the city needs to be "welcoming" to developers.

"The other part of this too is when you say to developers at the negotiating table, 'we are not going to work with you,' that's an issue and I think that's at least what I've heard is that some people are not willing to work with them," Ruffin said. "We have to be able to work with those folks."

On the roof ordinance

"I think giving somebody a misdemeanor or something like that for sitting on the roof or partying on the roof is just not something I am for," Ruffin said.

Communicating with residents to help them understand that the recreational use of roofs can be unsafe is key, Ruffin said.

In addition, he said the city can work with landlords to educate residents on these safety issues.

On the rush to sign a lease

Ruffin said he wants to emphasize that student renters and those effected by the rush to sign a lease should have a major voice in the discussion to find a solution, but he said a solution is yet to be found.

On alcohol abuse on college campuses

Ruffin said alcohol abuse is not a cultural issue at all and that the city should look at addressing it from other ways than a legislative standpoint.

In addition to outreach and education programs, Ruffin said diversifying entertainment options in the city will help null the alcohol abuse problem. When you provide alternatives to drinking students will take advantage of them, he said.

"The diversity of entertainment options, the diversity of things to do for students outside of just going to a house party is a place where we can make a real difference," he said.

Nathan Triplett

Triplett has served as mayor of East Lansing since November 2013. He was elected at the age of 30, making him the youngest mayor in city history. Prior to that, Triplett was elected as mayor pro tem in November 2011 and was first elected to East Lansing City Council in November 2007. Triplett is a 2006 graduate of MSU in political theory and in social relations. He graduated from the MSU College of Law in 2012.

The current mayor said he is running for re-election because he believes he has built the city a strong financial basis, earning the city a AAA credit balance, while investing in infrastructure and revitalizing public spaces in the city.

He said he would like to continue building the financial foundation, investing in infrastructure while making sure East Lansing has strong neighborhoods and a vibrant downtown

On the relationship between students and permanent residents

Triplett said there needs to be "constructive engagement" between the student and permanent residents population. He said he has worked through his eight years on council to work on this through the city's relationship with the university as an institution, but also with the actual student body through the University Student Coalition, University Student Commission and ASMSU.

"When the first interaction among students and a permanent resident is a positive one and they live along side one another in a way that recognizes we all live here that's when we are strongest as a community," Triplett said.

Issues between the two groups are inevitable, but trying to push different groups into different parts of the city is no way to move East Lansing forward because all residents have a stake in the city, Triplett said.

"I believe that one of the strengths of East Lansing is embracing our identity of a university community where permanent residents and student residents live along side each other and enjoy the vitality that comes from living in a Big Ten university town," Triplett said.

On downtown East Lansing and development

Diversity in housing, dining, entertainment and retail options that make East Lansing an attractive place to live for everyone from students to senior citizens is what the city should strive for, Triplett said.

"I think our downtown is at its best when you have that mix of things. I don't support efforts to limit downtown to only owner-occupied housing," Triplett said.

He said vibrancy in downtown and in public spaces is important.

As far as the vacant buildings on Grand River Avenue near Abbott Road go, Triplett said the fundamental challenge is and will always be that the properties are in private control therefore the city must be "conservative and cautious" in dealing with the situation.

Triplett said it is important to make sure the cost of demolishing the buildings is borne by the private sector.

On the roof ordinance

Triplett said that although there is a "legitimate safety concern" with the recreational use of roofs, he isn't sure if a blanket ordinance is the solution. He said this is the reason council deferred action and formed a work group of students, landlords, police and code officials to analyze the ordinance and safety concerns.

He also said the best way to tackle the issue may be from a public education standpoint instead of a legislative standpoint.

On the rush to sign a lease

Triplett said he has talked to city officials in Ann Arbor and Madison, Wisconsin, about the legislative action taken in those particular towns to help slow the rush put on students to sign a rental agreement. 

The problem is the "market will always find a way," whether that is through waiting lists or pre-lease agreements, he said.

The solution is not to over complicate the process and force leasing companies to come up with ways around legislation, but to provide public education through the housing fair, ASMSU and the Community Relations Coalition, Triplett said.

It is important students know their rights and options as far as leasing rental properties go so they can make the most informed decision possible, he said.

"Reducing as much as possible that pressure to feel like you have to sign, but it is a very difficult issue," Triplett said about the rush to sign a lease.

On Alcohol abuse on college campuses

Triplett said alcohol abuse is a challenge that is prevalent across the state and country.

"I do think the local government has a role to play in collaboration with the university in doing public education, promoting best practices, working through organizations like the responsible hospitality council to set responsible practices in our establishments downtown," Triplett said about working on the issue of alcohol abuse on college campuses.

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