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Wednesday, September 28,2011

Politics, labor and a golf course

Most City Council candidates aren’t on the same page as their union endorsers when it comes to the city’s Red Cedar Renaissance proposal

by Andy Balaskovitz

Glenn Freeman III believes he’s part of the reason
Lansing residents didn’t get to vote on selling 12.68 acres of the Red
Cedar Golf Course in the Aug. 2 primary election and instead will do so
on Nov. 8 in the General Election.


Freeman, president of the Greater Lansing Labor Council,
said there were too many questions between May 9 and May 23, the time
from when Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero unveiled the proposal and the City
Council first rejected the idea. 


Freeman said in those two weeks he approached Council
members Carol Wood and Brian Jeffries to voice his concerns: Who were
the city’s prospects for buying the land? What’s the plan for the land?
And will the city publicly take bids from developers?


“Brian and Carol both dug into what they could, and they
were given the same answers we were,” Freeman said. “They were not
really acceptable answers. … I’m certain the questions that were
created is why it did not hit the primary (election).”


Jeffries and Wood, along with Councilman Derrick Quinney,
were the three who blocked the proposal — which asks the public to
approve allowing the city sell parkland for unspecified development —
from getting on Aug. 2 primary ballot. 1st Ward Councilman Eric Hewitt,
who is not seeking reelection, said he too would have voted no, but he
was absent. Five out of eight votes were needed to place the measure on
the ballot.


However, after talking with Ingham
County Drain Commissioner Pat Lindemann about his plans to clean up the
Montgomery Drain and Red Cedar River with a largely organized labor
force, Freeman came around: The Greater Lansing Labor Council will
distribute campaign literature to mailboxes near you before the Nov. 8
election, encouraging support for letting the city try and sell a
portion of the old golf course.


Freeman said he didn’t have much better
answers from the city on specific plans for the 12-plus acres that
would be offered to developers if voters approve, but “I do have a real
good understanding of what the drain commissioner is going to do."


The Labor Council — which is made up of more than 40
local unions and claims on its website to be the “union of all the
unions” — is endorsing Wood and Quinney in the At-Large Council races
Nov. 8, as well as Jason Wilkes in the 3rd Ward and Jody Washington in
the 1st Ward. 


But while the Labor Council and at least two other local
unions are supporting potential redevelopment on the former golf
course, only one of those endorsees is: Quinney,  director
of health and safety for the Michigan AFL-CIO. Washington is undecided
if she wants the area developed. Wood and Wilkes said they’re against
selling it (although the second time around Wood supported letting
voters decide). And the events leading up to the City Council first
rejecting the proposed sale and then approving it leaves one wondering
how much influence local unions have on City Council members and policy
that gets churned out.




Unions want it


The ballot proposal asks Lansing residents permission to
sell the 12.68 acres of parkland (as required by the City Charter) on
Michigan Avenue across from the Frandor shopping area for redevelopment
purposes. If voters approve the sale of the property, which has been
appraised at $5 million, the Lansing Economic Development Corp. will
launch a potentially global Request for Proposals from interested
developers. If the city finds an interesting deal, the City Council
would need to give final approval before the land is actually sold. As
for the other 48.32 acres of the former golf course, Lindemann plans to
repurpose the land to act as a buffer and natural filter for storm
water runoff to pass through before it reaches the nearby polluted Red
Cedar River. While filtration will happen below ground, a multi-use
recreation area will occupy the surface.


Lindemann has spoken publicly about
consistently using organized labor for his construction projects and
how the Red Cedar proposal would be no different. His plan, which is
required under the federal Clean Water Act, will happen regardless of
whether voters approve the ballot proposal. However, city officials
have said some revenue from the sale could help pay for Lindemann’s
work. Lindemann has said it would be an “absolute shame” if his project
did not coincide with development along Michigan Avenue.


Along with the Labor Council, the local
International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and the Teamsters
support the proposal. A representative from the Michigan Building and
Construction Trades Council, which has offices in Lansing and Detroit,
could not be reached for comment. Dean Poggiali of the United Auto
Workers Local 724, said the UAW hasn’t “come out with a position
formally.”


Jim Dravenstatt-Moceri, assistant business manager for
IBEW Local 352, said that chapter takes the same positions as the
Greater Lansing Labor Council on supporting the Red Cedar and
candidates Wood, Quinney, Washington and Wilkes. Dravenstatt-Moceri
also serves as first vice president on the Labor Council’s board. Those
two groups also are supporting approval of a millage increase for
police, fire and road services, which will be on the ballot alongside
the Red Cedar proposal.


“Our goal is to focus on absentee voters,” he said.
“That’s going to be the real turning point. We’re getting behind the 8
ball.”


Lynne Meade, vice president and business agent for the
Teamsters and Chauffeurs Local 580, said any work done on the Red Cedar
property will help its current status.


“If there’s anything being done to the
park, it could only be an improvement,” Meade said of the golf course,
which was closed in 2007 by the Bernero administration for budgetary
reasons. 


Labor groups and their four candidates also share
concerns about what kind of labor will build any new structures? Will
it be organized or non-union workers? 


“If they do develop it, I would encourage them to use
union labor to do so,” Meade said. “The unions can ask that they use
union labor for development, but as far as having influence over it, I
don’t know. Whether there’s a (Project Labor Agreement) on it or not,
you can still encourage that they have safe union labor doing the work.”




Labor’s candidates differ on issue


Freeman, of the Labor Council, said the Red Cedar
proposal never came up while screening Washington and Wilkes for
endorsements. “Those were not questions we asked of those candidates,”
he said.


Wilkes, who is challenging incumbent
A’Lynne Robinson in the 3rd Ward, said he’s “in support of it being on
the ballot” because “how we vote is how we move forward with it,” but
he “won’t be voting for it” on Nov. 8.


“There’s too many unanswered questions as it stands,” he
said, wondering if any developers are interested in it already or if
there is demand for development there. He also wants any potential jobs
to be local: “Lansing shouldn’t boost other people’s economy by doing
Lansing work.” He said he doesn’t “see a problem” with union concerns
in the past with not using local workers without a prevailing wage.


Incumbent A’Lynne Robinson, Wilkes’ opponent, supports
the proposal: “This is the first of many steps before anything is
finalized for what will happen with that property. This is a vote for
looking at selling those 12 acres, it’s not a vote for a specific
development.”


Wood voted yes to put the question on the ballot but, like Wilkes, will not be voting for it Nov. 8.


“I have faith in the public and faith in citizens who
have passed parks millages,” she said during an Aug. 22 City Council
meeting. “When I personally cast my vote, I will not be supporting (the
proposal) in the ballot box.” On Monday, Wood confirmed her position:
“It doesn’t have to do with unions. My philosophy is about the
preservation of green spaces.” 


Wood believes the administration planned
all along to let Red Cedar — and more than a dozen other parks in the
city — deteriorate to a point of irreparability. “Ask yourself: If
people were utilizing that park (Red Cedar) would we be having this
discussion? No.”


Rory Neuner and Thomas Stewart, who were
both endorsed by the Lansing Regional Chamber of Commerce, have
expressed support for the project.


Washington believes some Council members are too eager to
get behind the administration’s proposals. She echoes the concerns of
Hewitt, whom she is seeking to replace, that the administration is
touting a plan that will never come to fruition.


“I have seen many times when people just rubberstamp something that looks exciting. That’s just frightening to me,” she said. 


Washington admits that her position may sound a little
confusing: She said if she knew she’d be elected Nov. 8, she’d vote yes
for Red Cedar on Nov. 8. If she knew she’d lose to her opponent Lynne
Martinez, Washington said she’d vote no. 


“It would concern me to give Council and administration
permission to sell off 12 acres and not have people in place that would
stay on top of it. If I had more confidence in the Council and
administration, I would absolutely, 100 percent vote yes for it,”
Washington said. “If I were on Council, I would vote yes but I don’t
know that I will be.”


Until the election, Washington will take an “undecided”
path. “I really am asking people at doors where they stand on this. As
I finish up my canvassing, I’ll have a pretty clear idea which way the
(1st) ward is going. Which way the ward goes I will go.”


Washington’s opponent, Lynne Martinez, fully supports the proposal to grant the city permission to sell of 12 acres of parkland.


“Depending on what the proposal is (that
comes forward if voters approve the sale), City Council could approve
or disapprove, so (asking to sell) is just the first step in a
development proposal,” Martinez, a former state representative, said.
“This is an important first step that the city has approved that we
could sell this land — not that we will, but that we could. … I have no
idea at this point what developers would propose so I’ll just leave it
up to them to see what they give us.”




Government making jobs? ‘Absurd’


It appears the influence of organized labor can only go
so far, both on the campaign trail and when it comes to governments’
mandating an organized work force. 


And remembering what happened in the
aftermath of the City Council’s attempting to block brownfield tax
incentives for developer Pat Gillespie’s downtown Market Place project,
the Council can’t legally reject tax incentives based on whether
Project Labor Agreements are in place. Ingham County Circuit Judge
Rosemarie Aquilina overturned a City Council decision last fall that
sought to block incentives for Gillespie because he didn’t have a PLA
in place. Quinney, Wood, Jeffries and Hewitt voted against the
incentives.


In July, Gov. Rick Snyder made it official. He signed
into law Public Act 98, which prohibits requiring labor agreements for
“governmental construction contracts, grants, tax abatements, and tax
credits.” The act is called the “Fair and Open Competition in
Governmental Construction Act” and was sponsored by 21 Republicans and
no Democrats. However, state union groups are challenging the
constitutionality of the law in federal district court.


City Attorney Brig Smith called the new law a “game
changer” because it “prohibits local governments” from mandating PLAs
on projects. “It was a game-changer for everyone in the state,” he said.


Mayor Virg Bernero has called any concerns about what
type of developer will come in — and subsequently any jobs that could
result in the project — “putting the cart before the horse.”


Randy Hannan, Bernero’s deputy chief of
chief, said Monday that the city’s RFP, if approved by voters, will
likely ask for developers’ intentions regarding labor, wages and
working conditions. “When we get them we can talk about those sorts of
things,” Hannan said. “The notion that a project has to be all or
nothing (organized or non-union labor) just doesn’t work in this
economy.” 


Ingham County Treasurer Eric Schertzing,
who endorsed Martinez in the 1st Ward, Robinson in the 3rd and Quinney
and Rory Neuner in the At-Large races, said the local option to control
where jobs come from has been taken away by the state. 


Schertzing said organized labor’s role in elections “has
some influence, but there are an awful lot of voters out there that
they don’t have a direct connection to.”


Ultimately, he said, the role of government isn’t to dictate where and how many jobs pop up.


“Government, in our capitalist system, will always be the
weak player. The market will determine what happens. The notion that
Lansing has a crystal ball of what’s going to happen at Red Cedar is
absurd.”


While only one of the four Council candidates endorsed by
the Labor Council is on the same page as unions when it comes to
dealing with Red Cedar Golf Course, the property still looks the same
to Freeman, the Greater Lansing Labor Council’s volunteer president.


“I drive by it everyday when I drive to the office. We need to do something with it — it looks pretty tacky.”


(Nyssa Rabinowitz contributed reporting to this story.)



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