Sept. 7 2011 12:00 AM

New ballot proposals make midterm more critical


What began as a relatively uneventful midterm election has become much more significant for Lansing voters with the addition of three major ballot proposals.

Voters will decide if over 12 acres of the Red Cedar Golf Course near Frandor may be sold and if the city’s property tax millage should be increased. Until late August, the ballot only consisted of City Council and school board races plus a mandatory question on whether to open up the City Charter for revision. 

“I think the police millage is the big thing to watch,” said Joe Disano of Main Street Strategies, a political consulting firm. He  is working on City Councilman Derrick Quinney’s reelection campaign.

Midterm elections tend to have lower voter turnout. However, Disano thinks the ballot issues, especially the millage, will attract voters because they are “hot-button issues for the community.”

Three millage proposals ask voters to increase the city’s operating millage, effective July 1 of next year, from 15.44 mills to 19.44 mills for five years, of which 1.5 mills would be designated for police, 1.5 mills would go toward fire protection and 1 mill would go toward road maintenance. A similar proposal for the current fiscal year went before voters in May, but it failed 52 percent to 48 percent.

Disano believes the way to garner support on the millage is “by scaring the hell out of voters.”

“People are more likely to support a tax increase, which this is, if they think it will prevent an increase in crime,” Disano said. 

At-large City Council candidate Tom Stewart said that the millage was the biggest ballot issue. While he supports it, he is disappointed that City Council did not increase the rate on its own. Stewart said the millage is one of his most important priorities since is deals directly with public safety.

“If we can’t figure out ways to fund that, we’re going to have a lot of trouble going forward,” he said.

Councilwoman A’Lynne Robinson, who is seeking reelection in the Third Ward, said that while Council could increase the millage rate, “that has not been our desire knowing what families are going through with their household budgets.” However, she supports the ballot proposals along with At-Large candidates Carol Wood and Rory Neuner and First Ward candidates Lynne Martinez and Jody Washington.

“Lots of people are concerned about losing so many policemen so yes I do support the millage,” Martinez said.

If the millage is the main attraction, the Red Cedar Golf Course proposal is a close second. The proposal asks whether 12.68 acres of the 61-acre course could potentially be sold to developers. City Council was clear during its Aug. 22 meeting that approval would not automatically mean a sale.

Disano thinks potential developers would most likely be paying for the campaign to sell the property, even though no plans exist for any future development.

Neuner said she supports the proposal as a way to fund the big environmental project that Ingham County Drain Commissioner Pat Lindemann is starting in Frandor.

“I think we have a balanced proposal here where we’re selling a small portion of currently underused green space in order to make needed improvements,” she said.

Robinson, Martinez and Stewart also support the proposal to allow the sale, but they want to see what developers propose before actually selling.

Washington said she supports development in the area, but will vote against the proposal because of concerns about the current Council.

“I’m just not sure we have a Council in place that will ask the appropriate questions,” Washington said. “I think right now we have two camps; one that says yes to everything and one that says no to everything.”

Wood is also against the Red Cedar sale because she doesn’t “support selling green space.” 

The last ballot proposal asks voters to decide if a charter commission of nine members should review the City Charter. A charter provision requires that the question is asked every 12 years to determine if the public wants revisions, said Chris Swope, Lansing city clerk.

While this may be the proper time to ask the question, Swope does not think it’s the best time to revise.

“I think our charter works well,” Swope said.

If the proposal passes, voters would have to elect a committee to review the charter, according to Swope. Most likely, this election would be held with the Republican presidential primary early next year, reducing some of the cost.

Committee members and their support staff also receive a salary, which is determined by the City Council, Swope said. Council can decide that members receive no pay; however, an attorney would likely be needed to make sure that any changes are legal under Michigan law and the city pays for legal fees.

Any revised charter also needs to be put on a ballot and voted on before it can be used, Swope said. The commission is allowed to present up to three revisions for approval, which could mean up to three special elections.

In Swope’s opinion, there is not enough wrong with the charter to warrant a complete rewrite. Provisions, such as the number of times City Council meets a year, can be changed with an amendment, saving time and money.

“I think it’s probably not going to get a lot of attention so I hope people understand what the possible ramifications are and vote against it,” Swope said.

Stewart, Martinez and Wood were against the proposal but Robinson, Neuner and Washington said they were open to the idea of reviewing the charter.

Washington especially wants to look at increasing the number of wards in Lansing because constituents cannot be adequately represented with the wards as large as they are, she said.

Calls to Quinney and Jason Wilkes, who is running against Robinson, concerning the ballot proposals were not returned.

In addition to the proposals, Lansing voters will pick two At-Large City Council members, one First Ward City Council member, one Third Ward member and three Board of Education members. 

The First Ward race, between Washington and Martinez, appears to be close, observers say. While Martinez has experience in public service as a former Ingham County commissioner and state representative, Disano predicts that Washington will win.

“The thing with Washington is she has the one thing that is very valuable in politics, and that’s ‘new,’” Disano said. “That’s a very dangerous thing for a person who’s been in office.”

Washington said she was “very pleased” about how her campaign was doing. She said she’s received a more positive response now than in the primary, though she was not expecting the race to be as close as it is.

“I’m absolutely thrilled,” she said. “I think that speaks a lot for what I stand for.”

Martinez said she was not surprised about the close race and intends to keep knocking on doors and promoting her campaign.

“We will just both keep working,” she said.