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Wednesday, September 29,2010

Kids in the Hall

Lansing City Council adds last minute amendment to snow and ice removal; Monday’s meeting dominated by a controversial contract with a city employee

by Andy Balaskovitz

This story was corrected Sept. 29.


Tuesday, Sept. 28 -- The Lansing City Council put on quite a show during Monday’s five-hour meeting, and fireworks began shortly after the Council unanimously approved a special land use permit for Abundant Grace Faith Church at 5750 S. Cedar St.

The Council passed the snow and ice removal ordinance 6-2 with a last-minute amendment that shortens the amount of time residents have to clear public sidewalks by one day. At-Large Councilwoman Carol Wood and First Ward Councilman Eric Hewitt dissented (Hewitt chairs the Public Services Committee, which drafted the ordinance.).

The Council agreed 5-3 to mail being deemed received one delivery day after it is mailed rather than two, with Hewitt, Wood and City Council President A’Lynne Robinson voting no. On a 4-4 vote, the Council rejected an amendment by Jessica Yorko to take out the sunset clause that will terminate the ordinance in July 2012 if it is not renewed.

Hewitt sought to compromise by keeping the mail delivery notice deemed received at two days, giving the Public Service Department the choice to either mail the notice or post it on the property. City Attorney Brig Smith said that would require rewriting a whole different portion of the ordinance, and Hewitt’s proposal was shot down 7-1.

Hewitt said he would not support the snow ordinance because he thought it was tainted by “special interest lobbyists,” namely the Mid-Michigan Environmental Action Council, which has been actively seeking a grant from the Ingham County Health Department that it would use to distribute literature on the new ordinance, should it pass.

Wood did not support the ordinance because it did not give a specified amount of snow that could amass and because there is no language that says the city will clear its own sidewalks before issuing tickets.

Once snow falls or ice forms, Lansing residents will have 24 hours to clear it. Besides using the mail, the city may post notices on property. Residents have 24 hours after being notified. After that, the city may clear sidewalks and bill the property owner. Upfront costs for administrative fees and 20 minutes of service run about $116. Each 20 minutes after that costs about $45. After property owners are billed, they will have 60 days to pay or the costs will be added to their property tax bills.

In other businesses, a resolution to approve the contract of former City Council legislative office manager Terese Horn was added to the agenda at the start of the meeting. It sat tabled for about three weeks after controversy arose over whether it would represent “double-dipping” into city funds.

The contract allows Horn to stay on as legislative office manager for City Council temporarily for the next year at $29.44 per hour. Meanwhile she will collect her pension and retiree benefits that she has paid into over the past 20 years working for the city. City Council Vice President Kathie Dunbar proposed an amendment to change the maximum amount of weekly hours she can work from 40 to 36. It passed 5-3, with Brian Jeffries, Wood and Hewitt diseenting.

Smith was the first to address the double-dipping issue. He pointed out that this is a temporary contract, which does not automatically entitle her to any retiree benefits. In fact, Smith said, Horn would be collecting those benefits regardless of whether she was working for the city or not.

“The term double-dipping is a bit of a misnomer,” Smith said, adding that Horn has already invested in those retiree benefits. “They will be withdrawn if she works here, somewhere else or not at all.”

Hewitt wanted clarification from Smith on what a “hostile work environment” was and believed principal clerk Danielle Stubbs will be subjected to one after commenting at an Aug. 30 City Council meeting against Horn’s contract. Hewitt also wanted to amend the contract to keep her on for 90 days instead of a year.

Smith responded that “hostile work environment,” legally, is a cut-and-dried term that refers solely to sexual harassment.

Then it was Jeffries’ turn. He called Smith’s argument against double-dipping “ridiculous.” If someone is collecting retiree benefits, a pension and a wage from the city, “that is double-dipping any way you put it,” he said. Normally the retiree benefits program is used to move higher-salaried, more senior employees out to make room for younger employees who start at a lower salary to save costs, Jeffries said.

“This is not a move to save money,” he said. “This came to us at the last possible moment and was set up to fail. It would be nice if everyone was on the same page,” Jeffries said to Robinson.

“Are you quite finished?” she responded.

Wood called the contract “unbelievable” because she allegedly learned Horn was looking at retirement in April. One of the main reasons for offering Horn the contract was so she could take the time to train a replacement. She cited detectives who retired in the middle of police investigations without taking the time to train replacements.  

Derrick Quinney gave his reasons for supporting the contract, citing 20 years’ experience of dealing with City Council personalities.

“I still don’t think she has gotten paid enough (for keeping us in line),” he said. “How we are treating her right now is deplorable.”

Quinney called the question, which would have ended debate, but his motion failed, 3-5, when only Dunbar and Robinson backed him.

Dunbar jumped in as peacemaker with two more amendments to the contract on parts that Jeffries took issue with. One required the City Council to vote on her termination and the other subjects her to the city’s personnel rules (the original contract did not). Those amendments passed 7-1, with Wood dissenting.

After the amendments passed, Dunbar called the question on discussions of the contract. The resolution was approved 5-3, with Hewitt, Wood and Jeffries voting no.

In other business, the Council also passed a fireworks ordinance, which aligns the city’s policy on fireworks with the state’s. It specifies that fireworks cannot be displayed unless permitted between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m. and requires those who want to display fireworks to report various insurance and past incident reports to the City Attorney, Fire Marshall and the Police Department.

It also gave immediate effect to the medical marijuana ordinance that was passed last week. The Council also passed an ordinance that rezones the property at 110 N. Magnolia Ave. from commercial to residential so the owner can apply for the city’s lead-safe house rehabilitation incentive. All three passed unanimously.

In other business Monday night, the Council unanimously approved 13 resolutions. Two were tributes honoring Lansing West Junior High School ambassador Lawrence Ray Davis and local gospel singer Maggie May Wise.

Out of the Development and Planning Committee, four resolutions to establish public hearings on Oct. 4 and Oct. 11 passed unanimously. They will consider Neogen’s potential acquisition of the Oak Park Field Office building, establishing a development district and an industrial facilities exemption for Jet Engineering and a hearing on the Marketplace development. A resolution to set public hearings on Oct. 4 and Oct. 11 for the Marshall Street Armory redevelopment passed 7-1, with Wood voting no.

Also approved was a special land use permit to build a church on vacant property at 331- and 3320 Baraville Drive and a correction to the language of a storm sewer easement at 525 and 601 Filley St. Jeffries said these developments are all time sensitive and will go up for a Council vote Oct. 11. He said the Oct. 4 public hearings would be “pre-public hearings.”

Three more resolutions passed unanimously that transfer funds for improvements to the Mt. Hope Cemetery, send 101 foreclosed properties back to the Ingham County Treasurer’s office and set the Michigan Department of Correction/City of Lansing Corrections budget for fiscal year 2011.

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