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Wednesday, April 25,2012

An unconventional script

by Kyle Melinn

To say the brewing showdown between Ingham County Drain Commissioner Pat Lindemann and potential Democratic primary challenger Mark Grebner is unusual is like saying owning a pet pig is unusual (as Grebner once did).

Let’s start with the basics. 

Lindemann is the 20-year incumbent running for a sixth term managing the county’s numerous drains. It’s a deceivingly powerful position that comes with the ability to blow up million-dollar developments or tax entire communities without a public vote.

Lindemann is an oversized personality who prefers doing business over a glass of wine or a good meal than a stuffy office. He loves photography, traveling to exotic locations and talking about both.

He’s a screaming liberal, a die-hard environmentalist and a tad unorthodox, which is about par for the course in this race.

His campaign manager is Steve Ross, an up-and-coming political mind who’s interned at the White House. He sits eight inches away from Grebner at Practical Political Consultants, where both are consultants.

PPC is the East Lansing political firm Grebner made famous for selling any voter list on the planet. About a year ago, with PPC on financially unstable footing, Grebner sold out to his sales manager, Penelope Tsernoglu.

Tsernolgu sought three years ago to be appointed to an Ingham County Board of Commissioners vacancy, which required majority support of the 15 remaining members. Grebner, who has sat on the board (barring a couple years) since Jerry Ford was president, didn’t back Tsernoglu then. In fact, he tried to get other people to run. It wasn’t until she lost the appointment and then ran for the post in 2010 that Grebner supported her. She won that time.

Anyway, Tsernoglu ran Pat Lindemann’s re-election campaign four years ago. She stood behind him at his re-election press conference two weeks ago.

Ross and Tsernolgu are engaged. Both Grebner and Lindemann are invited to the July wedding.

“It’s pretty awkward,” Tsernolgu admitted about the small office’s dynamics. 

Around the office, she’s asked that neither Ross nor Grebner use the PPC postage machine for campaign purposes and that everything is kept professional. Grebner said Ross can hang “Pat Lindemann” signs all over the office for all he cares, but that’s not going to happen.

“We’ve worked it out. We’ll just pretend it’s business as usual,” Grebner said.

Tsernoglu tried talking Grebner into running for judge, but his heart is set on sending Lindemann packing. He said he doesn’t care whose in that office. Just so it’s not Lindemann. 

“If Pat would agree to retire, I’d drop out of the race, since any of the likely alternative candidates would be fine. My entire campaign will be devoted to explaining the reasons Pat should be replaced,” Grebner wrote on a draft mailer he intends to send out.

Why Lindemann? Grebner said he loves to fix broken bureaucracies and sees the Drain Commissioner’s Office as being packed with “political hacks” who bring no real skills to the table. Instead, the same outside engineers, lawyers and management staff who contribute to his campaigns are given a little county-taxpayer rain to compensate for what should be done in-house.

Grebner apparently started looking into the office a year ago when City Pulse ran an article on Lindemann’s being late on his taxes on a rental property. Since then he’s picked up a volume of strange short stories about personal and professional financial mismanagement that he’s salivating to share with voters  …  as long as the stories tie into Lindemann’s alleged financial incompetence.

Grebner claims he’ll only serve one four-year term. In that time, he’ll find a “superstar chief deputy” who “combines engineering, management and political skills,” to run for the commissioner spot in 2016. 

If he were drain commissioner once, his county pension — after a combined 36 years of service — would be based on the $82,800 a year he would make as drain commissioner, not the roughly $12,371 he makes as county commissioner.

In short, a retired Grebner could live off the pension in one case. In the second, he could not.

Grebner says that’s not a motivating factor. He’s actually putting together a proposal to change the county’s retirement system so he’d receive roughly half of the $62,000-a-year pension he’d get if elected drain commissioner. He said his political opponents on the board are trying to defeat his plan, allegedly to keep a campaign issue alive.

Strange enough? I haven’t even gotten to 80 percent of what’s in Grebner’s draft flier on Lindemann, which was mailed to exactly 20 people for reaction, or the 40 minutes of jaw-dropping Lindemann stories Grebner shared with me around midnight Tuesday morning, which is when Grebner prefers to do his work.

What are they? Those can be saved for my next strange column on this strange race. 

‘Newsmakers’

Ingham co. Drain Commissioner candidate Mark Grebner will be the guest on “City Pulse Newsmakers” at 11 and 11:30 a.m. Sunday on Comcast channel 16 in Lansing. It will air at 11:30 a.m. and 11:30 p.m. May 6 on Comcast channel 30 in Meridian Township.

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