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Wednesday, July 25,2012

The enviro and the ethicist

On Aug. 7, Ingham County Democrats must choose between Ingham County Drain Commissioner Pat Lindemann, who has built an impressive environmental record, and Mark Grebner, who says the incumbent runs his office unethically and wastefully

by Andy Balaskovitz

What do you get when you give a pair of unorthodox politicians an hour each on public access television to bash each other? A lengthy fact-checking mission, for one.

Pat Lindemann — the incumbent Ingham County drain commissioner — and Mark Grebner — his challenger, a long-time Ingham County commissioner — were granted just that in May, when Grebner spent most of his time bashing Lindemann, with Lindemann returning fire when he wasn’t deflecting the attacks. The accusations have continued in campaign mailings. Grebner largely accuses Lindemann of overspending on drain projects and awarding contracted work to his campaign contributors. Lindemann says Grebner is unqualified for the position and is merely seeking a job that he can retire from in four years with a nice pension.

But to step beyond the politics, what is really at stake here in this Democratic primary? On one hand, you have the incumbent — Lindemann — who has a proven, 20-year track record of transforming the county’s storm water management by taking a progressive approach to curbing wastewater, capable of polluting rivers and streams. The numerous awards back this. If he is re-elected, he will oversee his biggest project ever: reclaiming the Red Cedar River from pollution from the Frandor Shopping Center and other sources.

On the other hand, you have a challenger in Grebner whose lack of any practical experience in managing drains, he says, is made up for by his high regard for ethics. In fact, he wrote the book on ethics in his 32 years on the county Board of Commissioners (from which he is stepping down).

“I’ve managed your storm water system in a brand new paradigm way,” Lindemann told a crowd of about 50 people at a candidate forum earlier this month.

“I basically concede that Pat’s politics are just fine,” Grebner said minutes later, referring to Lindemann’s environmental philosophy. “Frankly, I don’t have any gripes with Pat’s policy positions. The entire concern is over management, money and ethical standards.”

Whereas Lindemann is qualified and educated on the fundamental science of water management, Grebner sees the Drain Commissioner’s Office as a “chief bureaucrat position”  — he even questions the need for it to be elected, saying it should be just another government department with an appointed head. And even with promises to cut the number of outside contracts and fire Lindemann’s staff in the single term he claims to serve if elected, “I hope (for) no damage to what Pat is doing as far as policy,” Grebner told the group at Foster Community Center.

Lindemann argued a broader worldview in approaching the office: “There are four pillars to any community: You need a place to flush your toilet; you need a way to manage storm water; you need a consistent source of drinking water; and you need public transportation. You take one of those away and you don’t have a city. Infrastructure is probably the biggest and most important part of how we live as a community.”

And now a look at four accusations between the two over the last two months.


Grebner says: The list of firms that receive contracts from Lindemann matches political contributors

Scanning Lindemann’s campaign finance reports since 2008 shows that several companies who have been awarded contracts by the Drain Commissioner’s Office were also donors to Lindemann’s campaign. In some cases, these companies have done millions of dollars’ worth of business with Lindemann’s office since 2008, such as the Clark Hill law firm, which has offices in Lansing, Detroit and Grand Rapids.

A report provided to City Pulse from the Ingham County Controller’s Office lists the amount of money in contracts paid to 12 firms by Lindemann’s office since 2008, spread over several different projects. Employees at these 12 firms also contributed to his 2008 campaign. The list includes attorneys, engineers and construction firms.

For example, Spicer Group — an engineering firm with offices throughout the state — was awarded $4.2 million for various contracts through the Drain Commissioner’s Office between 2008 and January, the controller’s report shows. Six different engineers from the same firm donated a total of more than $6,000 to Lindemann’s 2008 campaign, finance reports show. Some have continued to donate since then. Fitzgerald Henne, a design and engineering firm based in Lansing, has done about $2 million worth of business through Lindemann’s office since 2008, including work on the Towar Gardens drain project in Meridian Township. Four different employees donated more than $6,000 total in 2008. Lindemann’s campaign also received contributions from the Clark Hill law firm’s political action committee and three different employees.

Lindemann’s campaign received more than $80,000 in the 2008 election year. Other firms with contracts with the Drain Commissioner’s Office whose employees have donated to Lindemann’s campaign include Hubbard Law Firm, Wilcox Associates, Great Lakes Engineering, Water & Woods Ecology and Northern Concrete. However, not all firms that contract through Lindemann’s office are campaign contributors. For example, the engineering firm Fishbeck, Thompson, Carr & Huber worked on the Tollgate Drain project at Groesbeck Golf Course, but no employees of the business have donated to Lindemann’s campaign.

Rich Robinson of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network said such contributions “creates what should be an uncomfortable situation.”

“I think voters should be uncomfortable too. When you have that kind of overlap between political supporters who get business out of the relationship, I don’t think that sits comfortably for most people,” he said.

Robinson said the situation is not unique for elected officials who oversee infrastructure and development. “It’s the sort of thing that it would be high standards of ethics to say: ‘You can be a campaign supporter, you can be a vendor, but you can’t be both,’” he said.

Moreover, Lindemann chooses contractors based on a Qualification-Based Selection process, which is an alternative to open bids. QBS, he says, is selecting the best firm from a stack of resumes submitted based on its qualifications and not necessarily the lowest price. Robinson said the situation “gets worse if the work is sole sourced.”

Lindemann said Grebner is wrong for accusing him of pay-to-play politics and that just because he takes donations from some vendors, it doesn’t mean he’s “bought off” and gives work based on that.

“I take money for my campaign in the form of donations from hundreds of people. Some of them wind up working on projects,” he said. “I don’t hire them to work on projects because they donated. Others work for my office and never donate. I don’t know what’s not fair about that. I hire them because they’re good at what they do — that’s it.”

Grebner’s campaign finance reports since 2008 look much different. While he was in competitive county commission races in 2008 and 2010, merely three contributors (other than himself) have donated and all for a total of $550. They include Erdman Mackenzie, a Grand Ledge business owner who donated to Lindemann’s 2008 Democratic opponent, Gary Marx; and the Ingham County Democratic Committee.



Lindemann says: Grebner hires political friends, too

Responding to Grebner’s claims that he gives work to political friends (and donors), Lindemann says Grebner is no different. He claims Grebner oversaw the hiring of an attorney he’s worked with since 1992, George Brookover,  to be the counsel of the Ingham County Board of Road Commissioners. Grebner said Brookover has represented him in various matters since 1992, including Freedom of Information Act cases.

Grebner said he suggested that the board retain Peter Cohl, Ingham County’s general counsel, for the job, but that he was unaware the board was already considering Brookover until after he was hired. “Im told that they solicited proposals and conducted interviews before making their choice, but I wasn’t aware of that at the time, and certainly didn’t participate in any way or encourage anybody to hire him.”

“Finally, the most important thing I’ve accomplished in the past 12 months was ABOLISHING the Road Commission, which had the effect of eliminating Brookover’s contract with them. That wasn’t the purpose for the change, of course, but it certainly would be a weird way to assist somebody,” Grebner said in an email.

When Brookover was working on a lawsuit against Lindemann’s office over the Cook and Thorburn drain dispute in 2010, Board of Commissioner meeting minutes show Grebner abstained from voting on a resolution to accept a $100,000 settlement from the Drain Commissioner’s Office because of his professional relationship with Brookover. And campaign finance records show Brookover donated $1,000 to Lindemann’s 2008 drain commissioner campaign. Brookover could not be reached for comment.

Lindemann also accuses Grebner of overseeing the appointment of Marc Thomas, who served as a county commissioner from 2003 to 2009, to the Ingham County Board of Road Commissioners. Grebner was a yes-vote to appoint Thomas and Milton Scales to the Road Commission board in early 2011, but that was after Grebner discouraged him from running and did not support him through the nominating process, Thomas said. Grebner added that it’s the commissioners’ job to appoint people to various boards — even if they are political “party hacks,” he said.

Lindemann also says Grebner hired Thomas as a campaign manager, which Thomas denies. He said he helped organize a fundraiser last week and has volunteered for his campaign taking pictures, but called the idea of his being campaign manager “ridiculous.” 



Lindemann says: Grebner shouldn’t criticize his handling of money because his business nearly went under

Grebner owned the well-known East Lansing political consulting firm, Practical Political Consulting, until he sold the business in 2009 to sales manager Penelope Tsernoglou.

Grebner cited the poor economy and the lack of a local bank’s willingness to continue loaning money to the firm that resulted in the need to sell. But Lindemann said it’s hypocritical for Grebner to criticize him for being “incompetent” at handling money when he was forced to sell his own business. Lindemann has said that Practical Political Consulting was driven “near into bankruptcy” under Grebner.

Tsernoglou, an Ingham County commissioner who is supporting Lindemann in the race, is now the resident agent listed on the company’s 2012 annual report filing with the state. She said she doesn’t plan to continue seeking a loan every two years to keep the company afloat, as Grebner did during odd-numbered years. Practical Political Consulting makes most of its money during even-numbered (election) years, Grebner has said.

“We’re growing and doing more consulting,” she said. “I will be managing all of the financial side of things.

“Our business did not go bankrupt. Mark was not able to manage it in a way that it could continue to be functioning,” Tsernoglou said. “He had to find someone else to take over the finances of it. It is what it is.”

Grebner’s response: “The only criticism anybody can make is that I’ve never made much money at what I do, so I’ve never paid myself very much.”

Moreover, Lindemann accuses Grebner of running because it would put him on a much sounder financial footing with the pension he collects from the county. As a commissioner in his final term, Grebner’s pay is a little over $11,000 annually, whereas the drain commissioner makes nearly $83,000 a year. If elected, the pension he would collect is about $61,000 a year.

“That’s not the main motivation,” Grebner has said, “but that’s certainly a piece of this.” Also, Grebner has led the effort on the board of commissioners to move county employees to a hybrid pension system, a move that he says could reduce his pension to about $40,000 a year if elected drain commissioner.

Lindemann also uses the Board of Commissioners’ handling of the recently opened, consolidated 911 dispatch center as evidence that Grebner mismanages money. The cost of the building was underestimated in both a preliminary feasibility study and for the actual cost to build it, Grebner said, which turned out to be roughly $800,000 more than what contractors estimated it would cost. After scaling back the proposed building, Grebner said, the cost was about $400,000 more than expected.

“You could say the Board of Commissioners did preside over a million dollars of unexpected costs,” Grebner said. “Is there some evidence of malfeasance on my part? I did my best — maybe someone should have thought of better questions,” he said, referring to the construction estimates. 



Grebner says: Lindemann’s project costs are high and he treats municipalities and taxpayers like his own personal ATM

As misuse of office resources goes, it’s a small crime.

But as City Pulse reported two months ago, Lindemann is being investigated by the  Ingham County sheriff and the Attorney General’s Office over some mulch that shouldn’t have ended up back at Lindemann’s house, at least not the way it did.  Heavy rain storms three or four years ago caused trees to fall in some county drains. When that happens, it’s common for Lindemann’s office to turn the wood into mulch, take it back to his office and have it bagged and given away free to anyone who wants it. But, as Lindemann admitted, one truckload never made it back to Mason. Instead, it was delivered to Lindemann’s house by a county employee in a county truck and unloaded by state prisoners on a work detail.

“This was an innocent thing,” Lindemann said in May, pointing out the trees were mulched near his Lansing Township house on the west side, so the truck was saved a trip across the county to Mason. “But this could be construed as a benefit to me. … Honestly, I thought I was doing a good thing, but if I abused a privilege here, I apologize.”

It’s indicative of how Grebner thinks Lindemann uses his office like an ATM machine. He cites drain projects throughout the county suggesting Lindemann’s projects are too costly and his spending too frivolous.

Grebner has repeatedly called Lindemann “incompetent” when it comes to spending. Most recently, Grebner wonders why the attorney fees for a relatively minor drain project — Kinawa View — are $32,000 and a “financial advisor” costs $12,000. Grebner has also cited a federal misdemeanor Lindemann was charged with for commingling funds 30 years ago at a U.S. Post Office substation in his art gallery (which Lindemann said he worked at less than half-time) and for paying property taxes late on a rental property he owns on Michigan Avenue.

The Kinawa attorney fees offer an insight into how taxpayers are assessed for project costs and what actually is spent. While Lindemann budgeted $32,000 for attorneys, which means taxpayers were assessed based on that fee, the latest figure of actual attorney costs is about $10,000. This happens routinely on drain projects, Lindemann says, because he has to bond for money based on what he expects it will cost — not what it actually costs. Basically, Grebner highlights the cost assessed to taxpayers, not what is actually billed by attorneys. Any excess money, by law, must be used to pay off debt service on the bond or directed into a maintenance fund for that specific project.

Based on the state drain code of 1956, the drain commissioner makes a computation of costs within 10 days after the “letting of contracts” or, in cases when costs are appealed, after the appeal has been decided. The drain commissioner is required to factor in 12 different costs as part of the bill.

The Board of Commissioners vote to back the full faith and credit of the county on drain projects — which Grebner says would only increase the interest rate on the bonds if voted down — and not on line-item project costs.

Lindemann defends his spending as hiring the best talent for each aspect of a project and his progressive drainage policies save taxpayers up front and over the long term.

Qualifications-Based Selection, or QBS, is a process for hiring contractors for construction projects. Lindemann defends QBS as an efficient and reliable alternative to open bid processes. Basically, firms submit resumes to Lindemann’s office and he determines who is best qualified. The Michigan QBS Coalition describes it as “an objective and fair process used by owners to select architects, engineers and land surveyors based on the design professionals’ qualifications ... .” At least one state office, the Department of Management and Budget, is required by law to use QBS when contracting work, the coalition’s website says.

Lindemann also is an advocate for low-impact development strategies, for which he’s been recognized with awards several times. This, he says, also significantly lowers upfront drain project costs. Rather than traditional methods like diverting storm water directly to rivers, low-impact development creates a habitat at the source of the drainage problem to absorb it back into the earth. 

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency approves of it. An EPA report from 2007 did a cost-benefit analysis of low-impact development versus conventional methods for 17 storm water management projects. “In most cases,” the report says, it was less expensive to do low-impact design than conventional methods. “Total capital cost savings ranged from 15 to 80 percent when LID methods were used, with a few exceptions in which LID project costs were higher than conventional stormwater management costs,” the report says.


MEET THE CANDIDATES

Mark Grebner

Age: 59

Hometown: Kankakee, Ill.

Education: Bachelor’s in urban policy, Michigan State University; J.D. University of Michigan

Work life: Founded Practical Political Consulting in East Lansing; Ingham County Board of Commissioners 1976-1980 and 1984-present.


Pat Lindemann

Age: 64

Hometown: Lansing

Education: Bachelor’s in resource development, MSU; coursework completed in watershed management at MSU, didn’t defend doctoral dissertation

Work life: Worked in a family butcher shop on East Michigan Avenue for 23 years; Lansing City Council member 1979-1991; Ingham County Drain Commissioner 1993-present


Grebner and Lindemann 

will appear together on “City Pulse on the Air” at 7 tonight on 88.9-FM WDBM The Impact. A podcast of the episode will be available after the show at www.lansingcitypulse.com.

City Pulse’s TV show, “Newsmakers,” will also rerun episodes of the two candidates’ individual appearances earlier this year. Grebner’s will air 11 a.m. to noon on Sunday and Lindemann’s will air 11 a.m. to noon on Aug. 5.

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