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Wednesday, September 9,2009

Excuse me ' boss ' fellow commissioner?

by Kyle Melinn
Among the growing stampede of East Lansingites looking to replace Marc Thomas as an Ingham County commissioner in District 8 is someone with a r'sum' that would pop to the top under normal circumstances.

Professionally and politically, Penelope Tsernoglou makes a convincing case why the Board of Commissioners should pick her later this month as Thomas' replacement until a special election can be held next year.

The 30-year-old attorney represented juveniles and low-income domestic assault victims in county court. For a couple years, Tsernoglou was a legal advocate for the county's domestic violence support team. She substitute taught in the Lansing School District and served on the county's Animal Control Advisory Board.

For the Democratic Party, she's been a reliable sergeant. The 3rd Vice Chair of the Ingham County Democratic Party, Tsernoglou co-founded the county's Young Democratic club, organized Barack Obama's field effort last year in south Lansing and ran Drain Commissioner Pat Lindemann's campaign in '08, among her many other volunteer political activities.

The 12 Democrats on the now-15-member board like that.

The issue is where she works — Practical Political Consulting (PPC) — and, in particular, who her boss is, longtime Ingham County Commissioner Mark Grebner. PPC is one of the state's go-to places for political campaigns. It supplies voter registration lists and political advice, among other things.

Keep in mind that in order to succeed Thomas, who resigned in August after he moved out of the district, Tsernoglou would need the support of at least eight commissioners to gain the post, which pays roughly $12,000 a year.

The deadline for applying for the Thomas seat is Sept. 9. Interviews would take place in the coming weeks.

Once the candidates' interviews are over, the Democratic caucus will get together before the full board votes to rally behind a unified candidate to prevent the three Republican members from cutting back deals and influencing the pick. That, realistically, reduces the number of commissioners Tsernoglou needs in her corner to seven Democrats.

For her part, Tsernoglou said she's wanted to be an Ingham County commissioner for years, long before she began working as PPC's sales manager. Politically, her views are to the left of Grebner's.

In fact, their first interaction with each other came when she took up the banner for animal welfare groups in 2003, when Grebner was outspoken in his support of the county's practice of selling animals for medical research. Obviously, the two were not on the same page.

If she were to become a county commissioner, Tsernoglou said she would be an independent commissioner. She would not be a puppet of Grebner, who represents the 10th district, made up almost entirely of Michigan State University. In short, there would be no PPC caucus, she told me.

For his part, Grebner said he finds himself in a complicated bind. As, literally, the author of the county commission's book on ethics, Grebner has opted to neither support nor oppose his subordinate in her quest.

He called around, talked to around eight people about applying for Thomas' post and got two to give it a try, Lee Reimann and Jared Wein. But he's not "supporting" or "opposing" them either.

"As far as my active participation in the appointment process, I just don't understand how it would work to have two people who work as employer/employee on the board together," Grebner told me. "Maybe I'm underestimating our ability to cope, but it just feels like it'd be an endless series of awkward moments.

"She's really a valuable employee, and my biggest concern is that somehow I'm going to lose her, possibly as an indirect result of all this," he added.

"As far as I'm concerned personally, I'd be happy if she gets the appointment, but I don't feel comfortable participating in the process."

One county political insider told me he's confident Tsernoglou would be an independent voice and that she and Grebner would work out a professional relationship.

But the perception would still be out there. And what if she doesn't get it? Some county Democrats fear a snubbed Tsernoglou would be turned off from politics and the "local fundraisers and free campaign work she provides will dry up."

County commissioners do have a deep pool of alternatives. Shelby Bupp is a former Gov. Jennifer Granholm's hand who runs her own political fundraising operation. She has support in the form of Commissioner Rebecca Bahar-Cook and the local organized Labor Council.

Bob Alexander, the former Democratic congressional candidate, told me he's in. He says he will not run for Congress next year, regardless of whether he wins this race.

Jon Beard, son of East Lansing City Councilman Kevin Beard, has been seen at commission meetings. He's told folks he's in.

And don't forget about the two folks Grebner called — Reimann, who is an attorney at Willingham & Cote, and Wein, a software developer seeking his masters at Michigan State.

With each commissioner possibly picking a personal favorite, it's very possible Thomas' successor won't be everybody's favorite, but a person everybody can live with.

(Kyle Melinn is the editor of the Michigan Information and Research Services. His column appears weekly.

E-mail him at melinn@lansingcitypulse.com.)


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