June 24 2009 12:00 AM

Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero was reading The New York Times during public comment at Monday’s City Council meeting — but says he was multitasking.



What’s black and white and read all over?

"It was The New York Times," Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero said. "I’m sorry it wasn’t your paper."

The gray lady made an appearance during Monday night’s City Council meeting when Bernero opened a copy and proceeded to read during public comment, about two hours into the meeting.

As Christine Timmon, a Council regular that fancies wearing glitter, feathers and fishnets, spoke about being in the Supreme Court, Bernero conspicuously began to read the Times.

He read off and on throughout Timmon’s allotted three minutes and continued to read as John Pollard, another regular, used his three minutes.

The appearance was that Bernero was ignoring the speakers during public comment, but he said that wasn’t the message he intended to send.

"I am capable of multitasking," he noted. "People understand we all try to make the most of our time." He has a hard time getting all the news with his busy schedule and says that he was listening and getting himself up to speed on the goings-on of the world.

Bernero, who is usually in and out of Council meetings, said he watches the meetings at home so he doesn’t miss public comment.

Still, he’s often stuck in the exact opposite of a win-win-win situation, noting, "I’m darned if I do, darned if I don’t."

The bottom line is that he was listening and he does think public comment is important.

"I meant no disrespect," he said.

And when he does miss a meeting, it is partly by design. Bernero insists that just as his predecessors didn’t attend every meeting, neither will he, because he is Mayor "24/7."

Bernero said that Monday Council meetings are for the eight-member body, and he does not have the ability to cast a vote.

At-Large Councilman Brian Jeffries says the incident could leave the public with the impression that Bernero doesn’t care about their concerns voiced during public comment, something the mayor denies.

"I am interested in true public comment," Bernero said, and that extends beyond the "routine" of the regulars.

Jeffries says there’s plenty of blame to go around, with some regular speakers going "over the top" and Council members using their computers throughout the meetings or engaging in a back-and-forth with speakers.

"There’s negative, disrespectful bantering on both sides," he said. "I think we need to be bigger than whoever comes down here.”

Sometimes Bernero takes heat for coming and going during the meeting, which Pollard has charged is a violation of the City Charter — it requires that either the mayor or his designee attend each Council meeting.

However, City Attorney Brig Smith says that interpretation is wrong.

"It’s not true that the mayor or his chief of staff has to be there continuously throughout the meeting," Smith said. "Calls of duty, calls of nature and other calls are not prohibited."

And, despite the protests of Council watchers and Bernero critics, Smith said that’s been his longstanding legal opinion.

"I know John Pollard likes to take issue with it. Luckily, I’m the city attorney,” he said.