Jan. 25 2017 12:29 AM

City Council rift could complicate upcoming development decisions

The Lansing City Council’s leadership battle is resolved, but the fight revealed deep divisions among Councilmembers.
Courtesy image

(CORRECTION: This online version has been updated to reflect the fact that At-Large City Councilmember Kathie Dunbar supports the bidder's ordinance and has in fact offered amendments to the ordinance which were adopted by Council. She said these amendments require "more transparency." )

The deadlock over Lansing City Council leadership is over — but the chasm between two Council factions is neither bridged nor resolved, laying the groundwork for gridlock that could impact major developments, including the Red Cedar Renaissance.

Essentially, the battle at Council was not about who would lead the body for the next year. Rather, it centered on control of the city’s development agenda.

Councilmembers At-Large Patricia Spitzley and Kathie Dunbar, joined by Second Ward Councilmember Tina Houghton and Fourth Ward Councilmember Jessica Yorko, generally support the way tax incentives are being used to lure development into the city. At-Large Councilmembers Carol Wood and Judi Brown Clarke, First Ward Councilmember Jody Washington and Third Ward Councilmember Adam Hussain are demanding more transparency and better accountability for the cost and benefit of tax incentives given to developers.

While the leadership tussle seemed to magnify petty political differences fueled by personal animus, some Council members say that wasn’t the case.

“You know it's important that as we look at an issue, I think it does a injustice to a council when the press, or the public, try to put us in a role and say because she voted this way, ‘You’re anti-mayor,’” said Wood. “Or because you voted this way, ‘You're pro-mayor.’

If (the public) had wanted clones, they would have looked at voting for clones,” she added. “They chose to put different people on council based on their beliefs and how they thought that they would interact. It's our responsibility to respect our colleagues and to be able to work with them.”

But Washington, the First Ward Councilmember, disagrees, arguing that Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero has clear allies on the Council.

“We clearly have a pro-Bernero faction. It’s been in place for many years,” she said. “When you see (Bernero’s chief of staff) Randy Hannan behind closed doors deliberating about leadership of Council, there is clearly a faction on Council.”

Wood was one of five council members who agreed to on-the-record, audio recorded interviews about the battle of ideas playing out at Council. Brown Clarke, Yorko, Hussain and Washington were the other four. Dunbar declined, and Houghton did not respond to a Facebook message requesting an interview. Spitzley did not return phone calls.

The interviews revealed a deep divide on how the city can move forward.

“There are some major issues within the city, and that's the philosophical differences. Part of it has to do with development,” said Brown Clarke, who is the newly appointed chair of the Development and Planning Committee for Council. “Part of it has to do with the medical marijuana ordinance. Part of it has to do with fairness and transparency in bidding — which actually all fall under the umbrella of ‘what's the vision of the city?’ What is the vision and who can move that forward?

“We have a lot more work to do in those areas, and when it comes to development and housing, those are the things I am most concerned about,” she said.

Hussain concurs that understanding Lansing’s housing issues is key in moving the city forward, particularly as they relate to economic development decisions.

“When you talk about economic development incentives, it's tough to have that conversation, particularly when they pertain to housing, when you don't know what your housing stock is or what your needs are,” he said.

Council has approved some large housing developments, most notably the SkyVue project on Michigan Avenue and a new Gillespie Co. development at Michigan and Clemens avenues. Both focus on market rate housing units.

What’s divided the Council in the last year are payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT) options for low-income housing developments. It failed to approve a 23-unit complex on the western edge of Old Town earlier this year. The developer, Sam Saboury, wanted a four percent PILOT — essentially to pay four percent of his income on the property as a tax rather than the standard tax assessed to real property. Saboury is suing Hussain, Washington and Wood in federal court, arguing that they violated the Fair Housing Act and discriminated against low-income people. That suit is thought to have been ginned up by Bernero, who held a press conference days after Council rejected the project to accuse Council members of racism in their decision.

Likewise, a proposal to build low income and market rate housing at the former School for the Blind has run up against opposition, and due to a clerical error, a public hearing was not held for the developer to get a four percent PILOT. The developer told Council it would move ahead with a 10 percent PILOT, which does not require approval of City Council, but could run into barriers with state housing officials who dole out federal housing development dollars.

Yorko said she was uncertain if the development issues were playing a role in the battle but “would hope that would be an area we are united.”

But that unity could be challenged as the Council moves forward with a public hearing Jan. 30 on a controversial bidding ordinance Washington championed as former chair of the Development and Planning Committee. The ordinance would require developers who receive tax incentives from the city to participate in an open bid process.

The Lansing Regional Chamber of Commerce opposes that ordinance. Organized labor, on the other hand, supports the ordinance.

The Chamber argues Bernero should simply include it as part of the universal master development agreement. That’s something Council has asked the mayor to do previously, but he has not. Labor says the ordinance will increase transparency and act as protection for local jobs on these taxpayer supported builds.

Dunbar, in a Facebook message Wednesday morning, said she supported the bidder's ordinance. She noted she had offered amendments that were adopted which provided "more transparency" under the proposed law.

“For me, it goes back to the bidders ordinance,” Hussain said.

Then he acknowledged this likely was tied to the 2017 election — and with two powerful special interest groups lined up on either side, they face a Sophie’s choice of which group to “piss off.”