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Wednesday, February 13,2013

'If'

Personnel Committee chairwoman says meeting minutes are inaccurate as the mayor's chief of staff says they border on libel and slander

by Andy Balaskovitz
Lansing City Councilwoman Kathie Dunbar’s computer continues to be a topic of discussion this week at City Hall. Now the administration has stepped up its criticism of the way its being handled, saying a Council committee unnecessarily implicated a department head in the debate.

It wasn’t even 9 a.m. and the fireworks were flying in the Council conference room Tuesday morning.

Randy Hannan, Mayor Virg Bernero’s chief of staff, appeared at the Council’s Personnel Committee meeting to say that weeks earlier Council members A’Lynne Boles-Robinson and Jody Washington made comments about the city’s Information Technology Department director that were “categorically false.”

“Our administration is hesitant to weigh in on Council’s internal political strife …,” Hannan began. Boles-Robinson interrupted him: “Yet you’re here doing it.”

Hannan continued: “When certain members of this Council attempt to bring in our employees. It has come to our attention that in several meetings of this committee, Council member Washington and you, Council member Robinson, made statements about our IT Department that are categorically false.”

Hannan quoted from Jan. 29 meeting minutes when Washington was quoted as saying: “The IT Department cleaned up the computer, fixed it and gave it back to the Councilmember. She feels that there was a grossly out of line (sic) in tampering with a computer that was misused and that they ignored Council’s request to secure the computer and keep it in the condition that it was turned in as.”

“I’m pretty sure we’re not talking about cosmetic cleaning,” Hannan said. 

“Let me stop you there,” Boles-Robinson said to Hannan, who was sitting across the room. She was adamant that the meeting minutes say that Washington was suggesting “if” that were happening with a Council member what the consequences would be — not stating that that’s what happened. Washington is out of town on vacation and was not at Tuesday’s meeting. She could not be reached by phone.

Last week, Dunbar alleged the committee created a “cloud of suspicion” around a damaged computer she said was the result of an argument from a former marriage. On Jan. 17, IT Director Eric Tumbarella responded in a memo to Council President Carol Wood’s questions about when Dunbar’s computer was returned to the Council office; what damage and repairs were done; had the “hard drive been manipulated or erased”; and a “statement from Kathie made to Eric or staff about the computer.” Tumbarella said the laptop was turned in around Dec. 11 and returned the next day; the screen was damaged; the hard drive was put in another “workstation”; he did not know whether the hard drive was “manipulated or erased” and that it was now in working condition; and he didn’t recall any details about how the damage happened.

“There was an ‘if’ before that Council member’s comments that need to be added to those comments,” Boles-Robinson said. “She said it twice. And my quote was about if that happened. We had no proof and no idea what had happened” between the IT Department and the computer. She said the minutes would be amended at the committee’s next meeting, which is tentatively scheduled for late February.

Hannan then asked if he could continue. “Certainly you can continue. I wanted to make sure you’re proceeding factually,” she said to Hannan.

“Take your own advice,” he replied. “If you’re going to level such outrageous charges against our people, you better bring evidence to support it. It attacks the character and integrity of our staff through libel and slander. You’re walking on thin ice.”

“So are you,” Boles-Robinson replied. (This went on for about five to 10 minutes.) She insists that Personnel Committee has been meeting for nearly a month to update the Council’s computer usage policy, which hasn’t been amended since 2003 when a sexual harassment case against former Councilman Lou Adado led to the creation of the policy. She said updating it is a result of new Council staffers who need a policy in place with computer usage issues. She said the Dunbar issue is “an example” that’s surfaced of why the policy needs updating.

“We’re coming together to fix something and we’re being attacked,” she said.

Meanwhile, Council members are not saying why there’s interest in the contents of Dunbar’s computer. Wood, who sent the memo to Tumbarella, declined to comment.

And this brings us back to the two closed sessions in January — which Wood has said related to Dunbar — and a “confidential legal opinion” discussed there.

Fourth Ward Councilwoman Jessica Yorko said publicly at Monday night’s Council meeting that “there’s an issue we’ve been dealing with in closed session that I don’t think we should be dealing with in closed session,” referring to the “legal opinion.”

Council members Derrick Quinney, Brian Jeffries, Dunbar, Wood and Boles-Robinson declined to comment why, citing advice from the city attorney. Washington and Tina Houghton could not be reached for comment.

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