What is your current professional title?
I am currently working part time, but I suppose you could call me a Human Resources Consultant.
Could you describe your background for me a little bit? This can be educational, professional, or otherwise.
Well I worked for 34 years at General Motors. I was a member of the United Auto Workers during that time. I have my Masters degree from Michigan State in Human Resources and Labor Relations. In Lansing I worked with maintaining the UAW jobs bank for GM.
In 2005, you were elected to the East Lansing City Council. What pushed you to run for public office?
Normally when I get asked questions like this, it's a bit more general. 'What made you interested in government?' or 'How did you become involved with the local government?' So first let me back up a bit and mention a few things. I've lived in East Lansing for a long time and was a single parent for much of it. It was during this time that I joined my neighborhood association, which I ended up becoming an officer of. In about '96 or '97 I applied to be on the City's planning commission. I was appointed and finished out one person's term on the commission and then was elected to my own. I served on the commission for about 6 years, until 2003, and I chaired it for a while. In 2004-2005 I joined the Parks & Rec commission. Then in 2005 I ran for City Council and was elected. I also ran again in 2009 and was reelected then. This was after a failed attempt back in 2001 where I ran and lost by about 30 votes. But in 2005 I won it in my own right. So to answer your question, it was after all this time that I felt that I had gained the experience to contribute to the council in a meaningful way, the support from the community to run, and the desire to do so.
So you could say that much of your career was devoted to public service?
Well, no. Remember that all of that, with the exception of the City Council, was purely volunteer. That was all above and beyond my normal 9-5 job.
What were your goals while on the City Council? What were some of your major successes?
I ran for City Council on the platform of reinventing and reinvigorating the City of East Lansing. In '05, '06, '07, '08 we had the resources to put up a bunch of development projects in the City. Those lasted until about '09 when the economic downturn really hurt us. From there on, most of what we did on the Council was “belt tightening” and budget cutting. We were trying our best to make sure that the City didn't fall behind. As for my personal goals, one thing I'd wanted to do since I was first elected on the council was introduce vacant property registration to East Lansing. This was something that several other cities in Michigan have introduced, and there was quite a bit of success in those cases. Basically what it was is a list of all the vacant properties in East Lansing, which allows the City government to more easily inspect the vacant properties and make sure up to code. It allowed us to hold those property owners more accountable for failing to maintain their properties. This was important because having properties that were up to safety code wasn't just an eye-sore or a detriment to the property values of the property itself, but they hurt every else's property values too. So I pushed that through for a long time and eventually was successful. And the policy itself has been very successful as well. One other thing that I had worked hard on was altering a provision for East Lansing's restaurants. East Lansing is somewhat unique in that in order to be categorized as restaurant within the City, no more than 50% of their revenue can be generated by the sale of alcohol. When restaurants violated this policy, they could be issued a fine, but most of the time these hearings were postponed and pushed off until the consequences of violating this policy were little more than a slap on the wrist. So we tightened up this policy and made the consequences very real. This was something that I'd wanted to push through the Council for a very long time, and finally managed to before I retired later on. I'd say that these two policies were my major successes on the council. You need to remember too that many people join government and go into politics because they want to make huge, sweeping changes in policy. They want to do grand things. But those types of opportunities rarely arise. Most of what we do is make sure that the functions are being provided and being provided well. The chance to make big changes are rare, and I was very happy to be able to successfully put through those major changes.
What were some of the obstacles that you encountered while trying to accomplish these goals?
Really, the biggest obstacle was staff reluctance. East Lansing differs from that of Lansing in that we have a City Manager rather than a mayor. The City Manager sort of acts as the CEO of a business. They execute the policies of the city and do all the hiring and staffing of the various departments. The City Council acts as Board of Directors for the CEO. So in the case of the vacant property registration, the City Council wanted to create the registry, but the staff that would have to carry out the task would was reluctant to accept it. The Housing Department thought that the registration and inspection of these properties would be a time suck. They didn't know how they would be able to pay for it. So we on the Council needed to work all the harder to get past the reluctant and introduce the registration. Then there was the financial obstacles. After the economic downturn, the City lost something like 30-40% of the property tax that was originally coming into the City. We simply lacked the financial resources to get our policies through as easily as we'd have liked.
Do you belong to a political party? If so, did party politics ever affect your decision-making?
There were times when I was a part of the Democratic Party. There were people on the Council who were clearly very conservative and some who were clearly liberals. The City Council, however, is a non-partisan entity, so we weren't openly a part of any party. Party politics really tended not to be an issue.
How much interaction was there between the City Council and special interests in the City?
Could you define special interests for me?
Well take for example the 50/50 restaurant provision. Were there any business organizations that sought to impede your attempts at passing that policy or maybe sided with you? What sort of interactions did you have in that sense?
Well I'm glad you defined it that way. Many people think of special interests as groups that are out to buy or bribe us elected officials, and that's simply not true. There were quite a few special interests in East Lansing. A lot of neighborhood associations, for example. There were groups of landlords for student housing. While I was in office, something I wanted was for student housing to be more apartment-style living rather than full houses. And because of this, this group of landlords would have fairly consistent contact with us on the Council. My personal policy towards special interest groups was that everyone would get a fair chance to voice their opinion.
How much interaction was there between the City and the State of Michigan when it came to policymaking?
East Lansing has the advantage of being so close to Lansing. This proximity gave us many opportunities to testify before the House or Senate on issues related to the City. Often other cities would have East Lansing testify on their behalf, even. East Lansing is part of the Michigan Municipal League, and we are often called on to speak on the interests of the League to the State Government. So East Lansing gets many chances to influence Statewide policy.
The population of East Lansing is somewhat volatile with the coming and going of college students from the University. Did you ever find it difficult to represent a population that may not persist throughout your term of office?
It definitely presents some unique challenges, doesn't it? It's something that I always had to think about while in office. I mean, not only does the population change quite a bit over just a few years, but most of those college students don't participate in local governance. So how can I know what people want when they don't participate and show their interests? So the issue becomes more about communicating what's happening in the City and why it's happening. And actually, fairly recently we removed the primary election for City Council-members. Students were complaining that by the time their returned to campus in the fall, the candidates were already decided for them and they felt that they had no say in the election process. So we removed the primary. And we found out that it didn't matter. The turnout was still terrible. What's funny though is that you could go to, say, Hubbard Hall. You could go there and register every student to vote, and get them all to vote for you. If you could get all the students in a single dorm hall to vote for you, you're pretty much guaranteed a spot on the Council. And we still don't see that happen, because student voter turnout is so terrible.
What advice would you give prospective candidates for local government, or people that would like to get more involved with their local government?
My personal opinion is that if you want to run for office, you need a record of involvement in your community. You need to learn why things are the way they are. You need to understand why we have these set of laws and what they do. While I was on the City Council, we created an emerging leaders program that trains its participants to become leaders in their communities. I think that's critical to becoming involved in your government.