Politically speaking, being the Lansing city clerk is a lot like being a Lansing Community College trustee — if you’re staying out of the news, you’re a step ahead.
As long as elections run smoothly and public documents are accessible, the city clerk shouldn’t be in the headlines and their re-election shouldn’t be in doubt.
And so it is with Lansing City Clerk Chris Swope, who earned himself a second four-year term last Tuesday by default. Nobody filed to run against him this fall.
“I’m certainly happy about it. It makes life a little bit easier,” said the 42-year-old Westsider. “I’m still going to do some campaigning, but it’s going to make things a little bit less stressful.”
Swope didn’t “luck out.”
He’s good at his job. And when you’re good at an elected administrative job, the chances improve that people aren’t going to bother challenging you.
“In the years I’ve been in office I’ve never had someone say, ‘Hey, I’m going to take you out. I’m going to run against you,’” Swope said. “I guess I try to run my office so that it serves people. If in the long run, that helps me avoid a challenge than so be it.”
The 2009 election season could have been a lot different for Swope, the first openly gay individual elected to Lansing City government. Swope had a strong band of detractors back in 2005 when he tried unseating shaky Lansing City Clerk Debbie Miner.
Lansing’s track record on gay issues is mixed and obviously Swope’s sexual orientation provided an underground subplot for those who were stuck on the issue.
But, as it should be, the campaign’s major issue was Miner’s rocky track record. The situation was such that Ingham County Clerk Mike Bryanton and former Lansing City Clerk Steve Dougan recruited Swope, then an Ingham County commissioner, to run.
Between some bungled false voter registration information and some precincts running out of ballots in the ’05 primary, Miner had a tough go of it. Swope throttled her 60 percent to 40 percent in November.
We have not run out of ballots under Swope. Rather, he’s made voting easier. He’s encouraged senior citizens and other eligible voters to get on automatic absentee voter lists.
He’s worked with organizations like the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) on how to turn in valid voter registration cards.
On the public access front, Swope has vastly improved a once-neglected City Clerk’s Office Web site. Now, the same information City Council members work off of is available on line before the Council’s Monday meeting. Previously, the clerk’s office kept a paper copy at its front desk. Few bothered to stop by City Hall to look at it.
Instead of mailing out 100 paper copies of the City Council agenda to the interested folks, Swope created an automated list serve that has saved the city in printing and mailing costs and while increasing constituent interest. Around 650 people are on the list serve. Only 30 folks still get the paper copy.
Swope has not been without his controversies, but he’s found ways to douse smoldering situations before they exploded into infernos.
Two years ago, Swope’s plan to consolidate 12 voting precincts was met with resistance by pastors in the African-American community who felt the plan put a hardship on congregation members who didn’t own private vehicles.
Rather than go toe-to-toe with Michael Murphy and the other pastors, Swope worked out a “win-win” agreement in which some consolidation took place. In exchange, the Clerk’s Office vowed to work with the African- American and Hispanic community to help bolster voter turn-out.
The consolidation plan has freed up staff for the larger precincts, which has sped up the voting process there.
Last month, a pair of downtown businesses got torqued up enough about Swope’s charging them a $50 going-outbusiness license that they wrote Lansing State Journal columnist John Schneider. The state says Swope needs to issue businesses the license to hold “goingout-of-business” sales, but he has the power to waive the fee. Swope said he didn’t do so out of fairness.
“I didn’t feel like it was anything I was going to pass onto the taxpayers,” Swope said. “I understand that they’re going through a tough time, going out of business. But it’s a consumer protection matter and the law is there to protect the general population, so I tried to enforce it.”
Up to this point, Swope has done his best to be fair. He’s stayed out of the Virg Bernero-Carol Wood saga. He’s tried to work with the “regulars” on getting public information.
He’s been a fair and innovative city clerk. For that, he’ll be staying four more years. (Kyle Melinn is the editor at the MIRS newsletter. His column runs weekly.
Write melinn@lansingcitypulse or firstname.lastname@example.org.)