Joan Bauer thought she was through with politics.
Bauer, a former state representative and Lansing City Council president, began to reconsider after Nov. 7, when Lansing voters approved a ballot proposal establishing a City Charter Revision Commission. Its nine members — out of the 36 who met Tuesday’s filing deadline for the positions — will be chosen in a special election on May 7.
“After it passed, I had a number of people encouraging me to run because of my experience. I had to give it a lot of thought, because I never planned on running again,” Bauer said.
While the revision question has been on the ballot in Lansing every 12 years since 1978, it had never passed until last fall, when 51.6% of residents approved it.
Bauer said she didn’t expect it to pass, but when it did, she viewed it as a unique opportunity to jump back into public service. She filed to run on Jan. 11.
“It’s very important to me that we elect members who will give thoughtful consideration to all the issues, do the homework required to understand how the current charter works and be willing to research different models of governance, both in Michigan and nationally, that could better serve our residents,” Bauer said.
Bauer isn’t alone in the field of candidates to have prior experience in state or municipal government. It also includes lawyers, educators, journalists, community activists, two former bankers and a retired librarian.
The nine who are selected to serve on the commission will be given three years to draft a revised charter proposal. If Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signs off on it, it would then go back to voters for a final decision.
While the election is still months away, the discourse around potential changes is already in full swing. One of the more prominent suggestions has been to pivot away from the strong-mayor system to the city-manager system adopted by East Lansing and some 175 other municipalities in Michigan in some form.
In a strong-mayor system, the mayor is elected as chief executive and serves separate from the City Council, appoints department heads and a few other posts, subject to Council approval, and maintains veto powers.
In a city-manager system, the Council selects a member to serve as mayor. The mayor would then lead the Council, which hires a city manager and delegates responsibility to that person for operating the city.
Randy Dykhuis, a retired librarian and the fourth candidate to file, echoed many of his opponents in stating that he’d keep his mind open to the idea, however unlikely it may be.
“If we made that change, we would have an unelected manager with diffuse accountability,” he said. “As it stands now, if we don’t like the current leader, we have a chance every four years to replace him or her. That seems much more democratic to me.”
In his mind, a shift in the structure of the City Council is much more plausible.
“Revamping City Council by establishing more wards and eliminating the at-large seats may give a more diverse group of people a chance to serve,” Dykhuis said.
Heath Lowry, a staff attorney at the Michigan Coalition to End Domestic and Sexual Violence, agrees.
“I’m really interested in making sure that the City Council structure is representative of the people. Part of that effort comes in balancing out the at-large seats with the ward-based seats,” Lowry said. “Frankly, four wards just isn’t enough award for a city of our size. That’s a little over 25,000 people per ward. It’s hard for a single individual to be able to represent that and beyond.”
Monte Jackson II, a real estate appraiser and attorney who has served on the city’s Planning Commission since 2020, offered an alternative solution.
“It wouldn’t be a bad idea to perhaps bump City Council up to nine members,” he said. “That would ensure we don’t have any ties and would also provide an additional opportunity for an at-large membership.”
Tim Knowlton, a retired attorney who said he decided to file when he woke up the day before the deadline, seconded that take, but for a different reason.
“I do not like the current system where it takes three-fourths of the full Council to successfully overcome a mayoral veto, given the current charter states that a two-thirds vote is sufficient,” Knowlton said.
Knowlton also supported a move to ranked-choice voting in city elections. It’s a position he shares with Julie Vandenboom, the first candidate to enter the race.
“There are some concerns about whether state law allows for ranked-choice voting. But, for me, I would support it if there’s an appetite for it from the community,” Vandenboom said.
Corwin Smidt, a political science professor at Michigan State University, isn’t so sure. He said the evidence for ranked-choice voting has been less clear cut than some may believe. While he said he would support a shift to an odd number of Council members, he believes candidates should refrain from taking any hard stances this early.
Another candidate, Ted O’Dell, said the commission should take a closer look at how the city’s various boards and commissions function.
“At the very least, we need to debate and discuss the authority of some of the city’s standing commissions,” he said. “One example is the Board of Water & Light. While it’s been my experience that it works very well for the Greater Lansing area, I’ve heard some people talk about wanting to look at that structure to make sure it is the most efficient way to go.”
The field suffered from a noticeable lack of diversity up until last week, when several candidates of color threw their hats into the ring.
Lori Adams Simon, a former DEI director at Sparrow Health System and a former state legislative aide who now operates her own DEI coaching firm, SimonSez Consulting, signed on, in part, to look at the charter from an equity standpoint.
“I will be focused on making sure that the charter contains inclusive language and outdated terminology, unintended biases, and defunct agencies are removed from the Charter. Suggestions I’ve heard are revamping Lansing’s form of government and streamlining city departments and agencies,” Simon said.
Aside from tweaking the charter’s language, any number of smaller changes could be in store.
“My belief is a lot of the procedures and systems that we have in place right now do work to a great extent,” Jackson said. “I’d just like to see a few smaller-to-medium changes that would make things more efficient and promote more transparency for the public.”
“At the end of the day, it might be minor, or there may be some major changes,” she said. “My hope is that the charter commissioners will go in with an open mind and not go in with any preconceived agendas.”
Here is a list of candidates
by ZIP code:
The following individuals did not give addresses:
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