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Wednesday, January 9,2013

The Wood files

After being elected president of the Lansing City Council, is Carol Wood content as a City Council member?

by Andy Balaskovitz
Carol Wood moved two seats to her left on the City Council dais after being elected president last week by her colleagues. But she’s still keeping an eye on another seat, one that’s a floor below her Council office: the Mayor’s Office.

The 62-year-old Wood, who is serving her fourth term on the Council, just laughs when asked if she’ll make a second run at the Mayor’s Office in this year’s election. It could turn out to be a rematch from 2009, in which Mayor Virg Bernero easily defeated her, 62 percent to 37 percent. Bernero has said he plans to run for a third term this year.

“No, I haven’t decided that yet,” Wood said during a 45-minute interview last week. Which is to say, she’s not ruling it out. Wood says she’s waiting to see who else commits to the race, but concedes that she’s been primarily wrapped up with Council business. “It’s just not been the first priority on my plate right now.”

It seems as though Wood has had the Mayor’s Office on her mind since her first term on Council. Wood’s only other year as Council president was 2003, when she assumed the role after former Councilman Tony Benavides took over as mayor when David Hollister left the office for a job in Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s administration. As Wood tells it, she was in line to be Council president in 2003, not Benavides, which, as the city charter provides, would have sent her straight to the Mayor’s Office after Hollister’s departure.

“We all knew what was happening” with Hollister leaving, Wood said, adding that Hollister asked her to go along with Benavides’ presidency. “Did I have some desire (to be mayor) at that time? I’m not going to tell you I didn’t.” But considering she was only in her first term, she agreed with Hollister, which “probably was best for the city at that point.”

Wood has been an  at-large Councilwoman since first elected in 1999 — she was defeated by Michael Murphy for a 4th Ward seat by 201 votes in 1997. In the time since Bernero was first elected in 2005, the two have developed a working relationship that — for anyone who’s sat through a Council meeting when the two of them are present — leaves you wondering who’ll take the first dig at the other, whether it’s for a policy position or how it’s being dealt with procedurally.

Bernero says his beef with Wood has never been personal but with how he says she handles administration-backed initiatives in snail-like fashion. Wood, meanwhile, is an unapologetic populist, saying she’s merely asking “tough questions” of the administration on behalf of taxpayers.

As for issues destined to cause friction between the administration and the Council, the next one to do so may be the budget. With an $11 million anticipated shortfall heading into the next fiscal year — and a Financial Health Team poised to make what Councilman Brian Jeffries said last week could be “draconian” recommendations — how drastic is Wood willing to go with the budget? Hard to say, at this point. 

“For me to step out there before seeing anything — I’m not willing to do that,” Wood said, recognizing that some ideas may take time to get “buy-in from the public before they come together. … Part of it is understanding what the public is expecting.”

When asked for specific ideas for raising revenues or lowering expenditures, Wood offered none. But she said one tactic is taking up city employees’ suggestions to do either. “It’s something we give lip service to — ideas that have been brought about by employees.”

For example, when Lansing Police Department employees suggested installing scales in vehicles so they could ticket overweight trucks on the expressway, she said. “Every year we have employees who put a whole list together. Let’s investigate those.”

What about selling parkland? “I would be reluctant to sell off green space that is dedicated parkland unless we’re talking about something that is a lot between two houses that someone gave to the city.”

How much should the city get for the former Red Cedar Golf Course, which voters have approved selling to developers?

“I don’t know. I have not seen an appraisal on it.”

What about consolidating Lansing, East Lansing and Lansing Township? “Regionalism is something we have to look at,” she said, citing mutual agreements among fire departments and a shared sewer system with Lansing Township. “Are there more we can do? We have to build trust. I don’t think it helps a situation where you start with name-calling” — an apparent reference to the mayor and Lansing Township Supervisor Kathleen Rodgers’ public differences over a merger.

Two years ago, Wood was part of a Council minority that suggested selling the downtown Oliver Towers for $2 million, annexing the airport into the city so the city could collect taxes from it and closing the north and south police precincts to run the Police Department from City Hall as a way to fix a budget deficit. While the administration dismissed the options as a “pipe dream” at the time (largely because they were long-term ideas that would have spanned years to accomplish), it has attempted to sell Oliver Towers and find a new home for the Police Department.

When it comes to getting Council business done, Wood is quick to deny any notion of voting blocs that pit Bernero supporters against her supporters. Yet she was elected president by a 5-3 vote on Thursday, with Bernero’s supporters — Kathie Dunbar, Jessica Yorko and Tina Houghton — voting against her. She, and Jeffries, have a track record of publicly bickering with the administration during Council meetings. It’s bad P.R., but isn’t it fact?

Wood prefaced our interview by handing me a typed letter for Bernero saying she’d like to “work together for the betterment of Lansing and its residents” while she’s president. She even invited him to breakfast. The mayor has accepted “on principle,” Bernero’s chief of staff said — details need to be worked out.

Opposing votes on Council “shouldn’t be perceived as for or against the mayor,” she said. “I get really upset with the media when they use this ploy out there about for or against the mayor.”

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