On Friday, Julie Vandenboom became the first candidate to file for the Lansing City Charter Commission election.
“I’m not an attorney. I don’t feel like I’m a politician. I’m not even an extrovert,” Vandenboom said. “For me, with the number of people I’ve heard who feel unrepresented or underrepresented in this city, it just feels like this is my chance to make sure that voices that typically might not be included in this type of process are considered. I want Lansing to be a place for everyone, not just a place for special interests.”
A 15-year employee of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, Vandenboom serves as a program reengineering specialist by day.
“I get involved anytime we’re trying to do things differently,” she explained. “So, this was something that seemed like a good fit to me — an opportunity where I could use my analytical skills and my experience to be of service to the community.”
The charter has been changed through individual ballot questions in 1993, 1994, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015 and last year. But since Lansing’s charter was established in 1978, voters have had the opportunity to initiate a general revision every 12 years, but they’ve never done so. Most recently, in 2011, 65% of voters rejected it.
Council member Adam Hussain didn’t think it had much of a chance this time around, either.
“Frankly,” Hussain predicted in October, “I don’t anticipate it will pass, only because it doesn’t seem like enough people know enough about it. And I think that’s a shame.”
The final margin was just 449 votes, with 51.6%, or 7,211 ballots, favoring a charter revision. With the floodgates opened, City Clerk Chris Swope set the candidate filing deadline for 4 p.m. Jan. 23, 2024, and the election date for May 7.
After filing, Vandenboom remained the only candidate in the race through the weekend. On Monday, former City Councilmember Jody Washington, who ran unsuccessfully for an at-large seat on Nov. 7, and Nick Zande, a regular speaker at City Council meetings, officially joined her in seeking one of nine seats on the commission. Once elected, members will have three years or three attempts to get a proposed charter submitted and approved by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer before it returns to the people, who will have the final say at the ballot box.
“They’ll have public hearings, they’ll have expertise on their side and, essentially, they’ll open up the charter for a full review,” Hussain explained. “What they bring back to the city might be nothing, it might include some very minor amendments, or we could potentially be looking at something all the way up to a complete change in the structure of our city government.”
Jesse Lasorda, a 2nd Ward resident and “regular voter,” had never voted yes on a charter revision question prior to this year. A Lansing native and resident for a combined 28 years, he said it wasn’t until his most recent return, seven years ago, when he noticed the “disorganization” within City Hall, an increasingly alarming number of blighted properties, especially on Lansing’s south side, and a “lack of services that have dwindled over a period of time.”
“I just didn’t feel like the officials that we elected are listening to what we’re trying to tell them,” Lasorda said. “We have a mayor and a City Council that are just absolutely polar opposites of each other, and it is completely dysfunctional — an epic failure.”
For this reason, Lasorda thinks the commissioners should discuss a potential pivot away from Lansing’s current strong mayor structure of city government in favor of the city-manager system employed by East Lansing and many other cities in Michigan.
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. And 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.
Efforts to restructure the City Council by reducing the number of at-large seats — or potentially eliminating them entirely — and to increase the number of wards, are also in play. Vandenboom, Washington and Zande have all advocated for some form of this approach.
“I’ve seen estimates that it costs up to like $50,000 to run a successful at-large campaign, and I think that keeps a lot of people out of the race that might otherwise be interested in running. If those were all ward seats, that’s a much more accessible and affordable process,” Vandenboom said.
Lasorda agrees. He thinks that the current system leaves too much ground for the four ward representatives to cover effectively.
“If my representative, Jeremy Garza, only has half of his current area to represent, then I think you are going to get a much better bang for your buck as a taxpayer,” he explained.
Lasorda said he was intrigued by the possibility of abolishing the four at-large seats altogether in favor of eight
or nine wards. In a comment on the Lansing Politics Facebook group on Sunday, Hussain floated the possibility of the latter.
“What about nine wards? We’ve seen business halt due to 4-4 gridlocks over things such as leadership… By increasing the number of wards and reducing the number of citizens in each ward, accountability increases. Those that aren’t serving will be conspicuous and be voted out, and the amount of money one needs to run a successful campaign plummets, allowing more to run and be successful,” Hussain wrote.
Some other issues that could find their way onto the commission’s radar include setting term limits for elected officials, exploring the opportunity to initiate ranked choice voting and establishing residency requirements for police officers and other city employees. (A 1999 state law prohibits residency requirements.)
“There’s too many people, as far as I’m concerned, that are making decisions in Lansing that don’t live here or don’t have a piece of the rock and they’re making decisions for people that do,” Lasorda said.
Mayor Andy Schor didn’t aggressively campaign against opening the charter, but he was notably opposed to the idea, citing first and foremost the high cost. Schor’s communications director, Scott Bean, said that the office is developing a budget amendment to accommodate the process. The City Council will be tasked with setting pay for the commissioners.
“The special election alone in May will be over $100,000. We are trying to work out the rest now,” Bean said, adding that the elected commissioners “will get paid, hire staff and contractors, legal expenses, so we don’t have an exact figure yet. We continue to estimate the initial costs will be at least $500,000.”
Hussain addressed this angle during the most recent City Council meeting.
“Frankly, we didn’t bat an eye when we put hundreds of thousands of dollars of lights up on a parking ramp. We’re struggling with the potential of $400,000 to $500,000 to have a convention to deeply engage the citizens of this city, to determine whether the most important document in this city is appropriate and lays out a framework for a government that is actually operating in the best interests of the citizens,” Hussain said.
Lasorda, who voted for Schor in 2017 but not in 2021, labeled Schor’s financial reasoning “a scare tactic.”
“With that said,” he added, “is this all Andy Schor’s fault? Absolutely not. This is something that has been going on and festering for decades. We can’t play the blame game, but, at the end of the day, we also can’t continue the way that we are going right now.”
- TYLER SCHNEIDER
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