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Wednesday, March 27,2013

The veto

Mayor Bernero holds sway over City Council by being able to sustain a veto. This year's election could change that.

by Andy Balaskovitz
Ten months ago, Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero closed out the annual budget process by alienating some union officials and formerly loyal members on the City Council.

The Council — with affirmative votes by Brian Jeffries, Carol Wood, Jody Washington, Derrick Quinney and A’Lynne Boles-Robinson — had its own ideas about balancing the budget, which chiefly relied on a higher annual payment in lieu of taxes from the Lansing Board of Water and Light. Bernero increased the payment in his budget last year by $3.5 million, but the five Council members wanted to see $5 million.

Bernero banged his fists, promised the move would result in higher utility bills for BWL customers and ultimately vetoed most of the Council’s recommendations. The Council didn’t have the six votes to override Bernero.

Should he keep his word on seeking reelection, it’s going to be difficult for any challengers to unseat Bernero, sources around town say. Two candidates have filed in the race — retiree Donald Krepps and Gene Gutierrez, an independent contractor  for Ingham County’s child services division with no political experience. 

While a formidable challenger is yet to appear, that’s not to say Bernero’s opponents can’t neutralize his power. That old unilateral backstop for blocking legislation — the veto — may be at risk for the mayor, carrying implications into 2014. 

Based on the City Charter, the Council can override the mayor’s veto, but only with six affirmative votes to do so. That looks virtually impossible with the make-up of the eight-member Council. Bernero’s had steady support from Council members Kathie Dunbar, Jessica Yorko and Tina Houghton. But all three of those Council members are up for re-election. So is Jeffries, a longtime Bernero opponent who took the most votes in a field of four in November 2009.

Should any of those three lose, and if Jeffries is re-elected, Bernero could wind up with just two strong supporters on the Council of eight. 

To Bernero’s advantage, though, are at-large candidates Judi Brown Clarke, an Olympic Silver Medalist and a diversity director at Michigan State University, and Ted O’Dell, a lobbyist with the Michigan Library Association, each of whom have identified themselves as neutral parties between Bernero and the Wood/Jeffries faction.

Local political strategist Joe DiSano, who’s working on Chong-Anna Canfora’s 4th Ward campaign to unseat Yorko, said recently that while he hadn’t given any thought to disrupting the veto, the “stakes are high” with Yorko, Dunbar and Houghton up for reelection.

“I think he’s certainly cruising to a smooth re-election,” he said of Bernero.

Canfora’s campaign, with strong union ties, is targeting Yorko particularly on public safety issues, which it says Yorko is downplaying. However, DiSano said the idea that Canfora is “somehow the anti-Bernero candidate is incredibly simplistic.”

A third 4th Ward candidate, Lansing attorney Bert Carrier, is running on a pro-growth platform for downtown. “By and large I find myself in line with a lot of different ideas the mayor has for growing the city of Lansing,” Carrier said. “I’m not going to commit to joining any faction existing on the City Council.”

In his time as mayor, Bernero has successfully exercised his veto power four times — three overturned City Council budget line items in 2006, 2008 and 2012, and the fourth involved the Lansing Boat Club in 2008. Bernero sought to evict the club from Grand River Park because a new lease — on public parkland — could not be negotiated with the private club.

Bernero said last week he has used the veto “sparingly.”

Bernero said that the prospect hasn’t been on his mind much heading into election season.

“On my mind is to get reelected and get a Council that shares my vision. I’ll be supporting the three ladies,” he said of Dunbar, Yorko and Houghton. “We’ll see what happens beyond that.”

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