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Wednesday, February 6,2013

Computers and politics

It appears the 2013 City Council elections are in high gear, with Kathie Dunbar alleging opponent Brian Jeffries is making politically motivated attacks against her over personal matters. Jeffries denies it.

by Andy Balaskovitz
It all started with committee assignments.

When I asked Lansing City Council President Carol Wood on Jan. 29 why Councilwoman Kathie Dunbar — who has served seven years on the Council — was not appointed to chair any committees or serve on any boards or commissions, Wood’s response was:

“I think there are some issues there, things I can’t go into. There are some outstanding issues that are being discussed in closed session that I can’t go into at this time,” she said.

So this is a private issue involving Dunbar? I asked.

“Correct.”

Curious. There was more to it than committee assignments. Why was the Council meeting in closed session about Dunbar? Why doesn’t the public know what the issue is? 

A little hint, it turns out, was an agenda item on the Council’s Jan. 7 and 14 Committee of the Whole schedules: an “executive session” to discuss, in part, “computer usage policy.”

Exactly one week after my interview with Wood, Dunbar issued a prepared statement alleging “several” Council members, namely Brian Jeffries — who faces Dunbar in a re-election bid this year — and Wood, had orchestrated a “politically motivated” attack against her over a damaged computer. 

Jeffries denies anything was calculated and said he has never mentioned the incident or the nature of the closed session publicly.

As Dunbar tells it, her city-issued laptop computer was damaged during an argument between her and her then-husband. She thought at the time it was “beyond repair. I did not report the computer was damaged because I was ashamed to admit, and didn’t want to relive, how bad things had gotten at the end of our marriage.” Months later, Dunbar was asked to bring in the laptop for “software updates.” When she told a Council staffer about what had happened, Dunbar said she asked the staffer to keep the incident private.

“Despite assurances that my personal family matters would remain confidential, that conversation has become the basis for a politically motivated witch hunt, led by Brian Jeffries,” Dunbar said.

“I know very little of her divorce,” Jeffries said in an interview Tuesday, responding to Dunbar’s allegations. He declined to comment on why the computer usage policy was discussed in closed session, citing confidentiality.

Wood, Councilwoman A’Lynne Robinson and the interim city attorney are also staying mum about the nature of the closed session to discuss “computer usage” and why it was called in the first place. On Tuesday, the Council Personnel Committee, chaired by Robinson, met for nearly two hours to amend its “policies and procedures,” which largely focused on amending rules for using computers during Council meetings and for bringing them home.

The committee also discussed who would be responsible for investigating files on Council members’ computers — the committee agreed that should fall on the Information Technology department at the request of the Council president. Those changes to the Council’s policies would need final approval from a majority of the full Council.

Personnel Committee minutes from Jan. 25 and 29 show that Council members discussed possible sanctions against Council members for violating rules related to computer usage. Dunbar is not mentioned by name. Minutes show the committee discussed an “offending Councilmember.”

To Dunbar, the meeting minutes suggest that the committee wants to search her hard drive, or the committee is alleging that she had it cleared for a reason.

“They have no grounds to search my hard drive,” Dunbar said in an interview. “There’s no reason.”

After Tuesday’s committee meeting, when asked if the computer usage policy was being updated because of incidences surrounding Dunbar, Wood said: “No comment.”

Wood said going into closed session was at the recommendation of former City Attorney Brig Smith. Interim City Attorney Don Kulhanek said the closed sessions were to “discuss a confidential legal opinion.” He declined to comment further.

Dunbar’s statement says that the alleged investigation into her computer is coming in a year when both Dunbar, who is supported by Mayor Virg Bernero, and Jeffries, who is not, run for re-election for their at-large Council seats. The top four vote getters in the nonpartisan primary election in August will face each other for the two seats in the November General Election.

Bernero defended Dunbar Tuesday, saying Wood is engaging in “McCarthyism tactics.”

“I was just trying to adjust to new Carol when the old Carol came out and pushed new Carol back in the closet,” Bernero said, referring to Wood’s statements shortly after being elected Council president that she plans to have a less contentious relationship with the administration. 

Wood could not be reached Tuesday afternoon to respond to Bernero’s comments.

Last week, she said that she sent tentative committee assignments to Council members on a Friday and, after not hearing from anyone, made them official on the following Monday.

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