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Wednesday, January 4,2012

The 2012 Council

Electing Council leadership and anticipating another difficult budget process. Also, Bernero plans to run for re-election in 2013.

by Andy Balaskovitz
A new year for the Lansing City Council brings uncertainty over who will lead the legislative body, another set of budget challenges and a pledge from the mayor that he’s “optimistic” to work with the Council — and plans to run for re-election in 2013.

On Thursday, the Council will elect a new president and vice president to lead the eight-member body for the next year. Who that will be is anyone’s guess. One Council member predicts the process will make for an “interesting” Thursday afternoon.

Each year before the Council’s first meeting in January, the body meets as Committee of the Whole to recommend a new Council president and vice president, or to keep the same two members at those posts. Recommendations need five votes before going to the full Council for approval as the first order of business in the New Year.

Third Ward Councilwoman A’Lynne Robinson, who served as president in 2010 and 2011, did not offer any clues to who may fill her shoes in 2012. Because she is presiding over the Committee of the Whole meeting scheduled for 1:30 p.m. Thursday, Robinson said she will wait and see whom a majority of Council members recommend for the job. “I don’t know who’s going to be nominated. You never know, I’m telling you.”

In the past 10 years, no Council member has served more than two consecutive years as president. Robinson in 2010 and 2011 and former 1st Ward Councilman Harold Leeman in 2006 and 2007 are the only members since 2002 to do so. In four of the last 10 years, the Council member serving as vice president in the year before was elected president. If that’s the case Thursday, At-Large Councilwoman Kathie Dunbar will move into Robinson’s slot.

While Robinson said that has happened in years past, “I don’t know if that’s the case this time. … Some years it’s a given. … You can suppose all you like, but a wise person will say, ‘I don’t know until we get into that meeting.’”

Second Ward Councilwoman Tina Houghton said she is backing Dunbar for president, but she is undecided whom she supports for vice president. She predicts Thursday’s election process “is going to be an interesting day. I don’t know if anyone has five votes.” Houghton said she personally is not interested in a leadership role because she is helping her son rehabilitate from an August car accident and is concerned about time constraints.

Dunbar could not be reached for comment.

If you want a sense of the last-minute uncertainty, Robinson pointed to January 2010 when it took more than an hour for the Council to decide who should serve as vice president. The Council was reportedly split 4-4 on who should take the role between Dunbar and former 1st Ward Councilman Eric Hewitt. Dunbar had the support of Derrick Quinney, Jessica Yorko and Houghton, while Hewitt had the support of Carol Wood, Brian Jeffries and Robinson. Dunbar and Hewitt planned to vote for themselves. Robinson ultimately cast the deciding vote for Dunbar.

The Council president is also tasked with — based on City Charter rules — taking over as mayor if the acting mayor leaves before his term ends. That happened in 2003 when Tony Benavides took over as mayor when David Hollister stepped down to accept a cabinet position in Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s administration. The possibility was again relevant leading up to Robinson’s re-election as president last year when Mayor Virg Bernero competed against Rick Snyder in the 2010 gubernatorial election. The speculation was meaningless after Bernero lost the election.

Bernero quelled that prospect again for 2012 on Tuesday when he pledged in an interview to finish his term and that he’ll seek re-election in 2013. “Rumors of my early demise are greatly exaggerated,” he said.

Bernero said he’s “optimistic” and “looking forward to a fresh start” with the Council with the swearing-in on Thursday of Jody Washington of the 1st Ward to replace Hewitt, who differed with the mayor on just about everything. “I’m looking forward to working with her and the rest of Council,” Bernero said. 

Houghton also noted, “I think Jody is going to bring a good perspective. What I see so far is that she’s going to be her own person.” 

Washington could not be reached for comment. The other four Council members — Jeffries, Quinney, Wood and Yorko — also were unavailable.

As for major business coming before Council, Robinson and Houghton placed an emphasis on the upcoming budget process. Council’s role will likely involve a more “traditional scrutinizing” of the budget, including “bringing department heads in” to discuss each department’s budget or scheduling a month full of budget meetings, Robinson said.

This year, one challenge will be how to allocate $7.6 million for police, fire and roads services, Robinson said. Even though the millage voters approved in November would designate $2.85 million each for the Police and Fire departments and $1.9 million for local road repairs, Robinson said there are “a lot of different line items” within each department. Decisions like how many support staffers or full-time officers or firefighters you bring back “are tied directly to where you place those dollars.” And then there’s another deficit of nearly $8 million, based on the administration’s projections.


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