Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Meet the East Lansing City Council candidates

October 18, 2017
<p>From left to right, East Lansing City Council candidates Aaron Stephens, Ruth Beier, and Susan Woods listen to the moderators' question during the debate on Sep. 21, in the Tower Room in the Union. The debate was hosted by ASMSU.</p>

From left to right, East Lansing City Council candidates Aaron Stephens, Ruth Beier, and Susan Woods listen to the moderators' question during the debate on Sep. 21, in the Tower Room in the Union. The debate was hosted by ASMSU.

Photo by Matt Schmucker | The State News

As the Nov. 7, municipal election approaches, meet the three candidates running for two seats on the East Lansing City Council.

There are two incumbents, Mayor Pro Tem Ruth Beier and councilmember Susan Woods, and political science senior Aaron Stephens is running for the first time.

The State News sat down with the candidates to ask them each the same questions and introduce readers to their positions.

Why are you running?

Beier: “I originally ran for two reasons. One, I wanted to get rid of the blight on Grand River and Abbot, and have something new there. That’s halfway done. We succeeded in getting rid of the blight, but I want to make sure that we get something that everybody likes in the city.

"The bigger reason is that my major goal when I first ran was to make everybody understand what our financial problems were because I didn’t think previous councils were talking about that, and then do something about that. So now everybody knows what the problems are and we’re moving forward to do something.”

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Stephens: “I’ve always fought for what I believe in. The truth is I believe the best thing one can do with their life is serve. … I have a weird mix I would say, so I’m Indian and Armenian. … I always look back on my family’s history and it’s kind of a remarkable thing that I’m even here in the first place. The Armenian Genocide, obviously on that side of my family’s past and the Pakistan-Indian split.

"It put that value in me that no matter what I do with my life, it should be dedicated to helping people. That’s how I’m going to live my life. Win or lose this election, whatever I choose as a career path, it’s going to be to help people. Because I think that with all the random chance that went into me even existing and with everything I’ve seen, I think that it would be a damn waste if I didn’t do something good with my life.”

Woods: “I’m running again because all the work that I had started for the first four years, I want to see more completed. First of all, I love the job and I am really excited by the symbiosis of the present city council, and I hope to be able to continue all of our hard work.”

What sets you apart from the other candidates?

Beier: “My background is in finance and that’s what I think about all day. So I think that gives me some expertise on council that wouldn’t be here if I weren’t here.”

Stephens: “I’ve worked with MSU administration on a number of things. … Obviously knowing the ins and outs of MSU administration, understanding the resources that they have available, is something that I think, again, is not really as utilized as it should be in the city. 

"We should be a unified city, we should be a partnership. We should tackle issues together, and I think the one thing I can definitively bring to the table is that aspect. Besides that having a youth perspective, especially in a town where there’s tens of thousands of students, is very important.

Woods: “Obviously from Aaron Stephens, it’s more years of experience. It’s also 23 more years of living in East Lansing. It is having children that have gone through school and having more experience. It’s just having more connections to the community and especially the hard work. Knowing the staff, it’s a learning curve and it would be a learning curve for anybody — I don’t care who you are — to become a new member of the city council."

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"So that’s how I think that’s how I set myself apart from Aaron and with Ruth, I don’t think there is any difference. We both came in at the same time, we have worked for four years. We get along very well and I think that we compliment each other, so I’m hoping she would get re-elected.”

Do you support the income tax proposal?

Beier: “I do. I don’t know if people realize this but cities have two sources of revenue – big sources. One is the property tax, and two is the income tax. We don’t have any other options in terms of something broad. … Our options are the property tax and income tax. Our property tax in 2008 took a big hit because all the values fell in the city. 

"The other side is we have a huge unfunded pension liability which we cannot get out of – we have to actually pay it. And if we don’t do something, within not very many years, most of our budget will be going to pay for that, which means we can’t do what we need to do. So that’s why I support the income tax because we don’t have any other options.” 

Stephens: “I will be voting for the income tax … the reason why I’m supporting the income tax is because we need money in the short term. We have that payments we’re legally required to make in the city on programs and liabilities that we can’t necessarily negotiate. … Now that that exemption was put up to $5,000 and so the majority of the students that are working part time here … they’re going to be exempt from the tax, hopefully.”

Woods: “Yes I do.”

What other issues is East Lansing facing?

Beier: “I think East Lansing is at a turning point of changing from what is, which is not a bad thing, but it’s a one-dimensional kind of college town to something multidimensional. So it’ll still be a college town, always obviously, but I think we will also offer things to people who aren’t necessarily affiliated with MSU. So it will be a place where people want to live and work and shop, even if they aren’t students. And that I think is very exciting.

Stephens: “I think we can be doing a lot more about sexual assault prevention. One thing I would like to see … is I’m working on right now developing a program where we’ll have bystander intervention training program for local East Lansing businesses. 

"I serve on the Human Relations Commission. One of the biggest issues that we see, and a lot of discriminatory cases is discrimination on housing. We’ve got a large international population that’s coming in. They are told they can’t rent in a certain place because they are an international student, but they have their rights.”

Woods: “Well the biggest issue is obviously the unfunded liability of legacy costs. We need to find new revenue. … We’ve gone through every line item that we have and we have cut that. … We are down to the bare minimum. … The income tax is the only way that we can share the pain with all those who use services here.”

Do you think having a younger person run changes the election?

Beier: “I do, and not just any young person. This guy Aaron is working very hard. He’s not just put his name in there. So it’s a different dynamic. I think he’s doing a good job, he’s working hard. … I looked at the voter registration numbers on campus right now and they’re not that much different than they ever have been, which surprises me. I thought with a student running there’d be more people registering to vote.”

Stephens: “Oh definitely. The truth is I’m going to have a perspective that my opponents might not, just because of my age, because I am a person of color. They’re going to have a perspective that I don’t either. I think that’s why it’s most important to just listen to people that might have opinions or perspectives that you don’t have.”

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Woods: “I think anybody who runs changes the race. I mean, I wouldn’t want it to be no contest at all. Aaron’s a very capable, eloquent, hard-working candidate. … But he’s inexperienced and he doesn’t know. I don’t think age really has an issue. I think it’s if you are qualified and if you can bring something to the council.”

What do you want to see from the new Park District Project?

Beier: “I want to see something unusual that people who already live here would want to walk to. The last proposal had an upscale restaurant and bar on the top floor. I thought that was really cool. I like the retail on the first floor. I’d like some offices in there if we can get that, or if not on that building, maybe on the Evergreen, because if you have offices where people drive to work then they’ll want to go downtown and do other things.”

Stephens: “Development is development. Whatever the market takes is whatever the market takes. … Just something that the entire community can use. … This is one of the those questions where I talk about the developments that are happening. I talk about the developments that have been proposed but nobody really asks me what would you just want to see. … If I had to choose anything, again, I think it’s just something the entire community can use.”

Woods: “We don’t know what it’s going to be. I know I definitely want to have the hotel in there because we need it desperately. … I hope that they have a good restaurant, we always need good restaurants downtown. Whatever they can build now that they have to redesign the whole project.”

What is your favorite change the city has made during the last four years?

Beier: “This is going to sound boring, but it is for me, everybody is talking about our unfunded liability. Everybody knows it’s out there now. Everybody knows that our roads are 100 years old and we don’t have any money to pay for them. Everybody knows that are sewers are 100 years old and we don’t have any money to pay for them. It sounds awful, but as soon as you do that then people start to think, ‘Oh that makes sense, we have to pay for this.’ So that’s a huge accomplishment in my opinion.”

Stephens: “Oh dear. There’s been a lot of things. Well, one the policy side and the nitty-gritty, the non — I  guess — sexy stuff, I like the fact the city was restructuring pensions to go towards different plans so we would see lower costs in the next few decades here.

"One of the things I really like about the City of East Lansing is when they get grants from the state … they’re using that money to help nonprofits in the area.”

Woods: “There’s many. One that we have finally, finally, finally gotten to take, Park District moving, we’ve demolished Citizens Bank on that corner. … I am very proud of what’s happening with the Bailey Community Center, that we’re providing low-income housing for our citizens and fixing up the building and providing a new day care center in the neighborhood.”

Is there anything else you would like to say?

Beier: “I’d really like a big turnout. The income tax question might help with that. But whatever happens, yes or no, on the income tax, I would like more than 1,600 people to vote on it. I want people to own the yes vote, and I want people to own the no vote. If the income tax and property cut go down, I want 20,000 people to vote so that they know that they voted no and that’s why these other things had to happen. I don’t want a few people voting no to decide. Let’s say we have to close a park. I want somebody who voted no to realize that, not somebody who stayed home.”

Stephens: “Win or lose this election, I will be in East Lansing. You don’t have to worry about me getting out of here anytime soon, or if you really, really want me to leave, I’m not leaving anytime soon, so I apologize. I love this city. It’s given so much to me already, and I really just want to serve it in the best way possible. I appreciate the support from Sam Singh, our state representative and our former mayor in East Lansing, and I really appreciate the support of community members that I’ve already seen. It’s honestly just an honor to run and it’s a privilege to have my opinion heard.”

Woods: “I love East Lansing and the staff that works here. I love the city because of the community. It’s sort of amazing that all of this has been created on the backs of 24,000 people because the other 24,000 are students who are temporary and with that mixture we’ve been able to create a dynamic, wonderful city that provides so much. I would just like to have the privilege and the honor of continuing my work.”

Editor's note: answers have been edited for clarity and length.

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