March 18 2013 12:00 AM

In its last meeting of 2011, Council debates voter turnout as it rejects two ballot proposals to potentially sell parkland

Tuesday, Dec. 13 — At the heart of the Lansing City Council’s rejection Monday night of two ballot proposals to potentially sell city-owned parkland was a disagreement on whether voters should be asked in February or in August and when more would show up.

The discrepancy came as the seven members present — Councilman Derrick Quinney was absent — considered three ballot proposals in Committee of the Whole: to reduce the number of yearly Council meetings; to ask voter permission to sell Waverly Golf Course and Michigan Avenue Park; and to ask voter permission to sell an old parks building and parking lot in Oak Park.

All three resolutions stated the proposals would be on Feb. 28 Republican presidential primary ballots. At-Large Councilman Brian Jeffries announced early on that he wouldn’t support any of the proposals unless they were moved to the Aug. 7 primary election when voter turnout is expected to be higher.

But Council President A’Lynne Robinson and At-Large Councilwoman Kathie Dunbar countered that not just Republican voters will turn out Feb. 28 if local issues are on the ballot. Robinson accused Jeffries of not giving Lansing voters enough credit for being informed.

The divide would prove to be the final Jeffries-Wood-Hewitt alliance vote on the Council, as Monday was Hewitt’s final committee and Council meeting of his term. Jody Washington will replace him Jan. 1 as 1st Ward Council representative.

Let’s start with the first proposal: amending the City Charter to reduce the number of required yearly Council meetings from at least 50 to at least 26. The idea behind City Clerk Chris Swope’s proposal is to save money and bring Lansing in line with every other city he’s found in Michigan that meets twice a month.

Jeffries offered the amendment to move it to Aug. 7, which didn’t draw any opposition. Two other amendments also passed unanimously that said, if passed, the revision wouldn’t take effect until Jan. 1, 2013 and that the Council intends to use “off-weeks” for Committee of the Whole meetings.

The resolution with amendments passed unanimously in committee and then later during the Council’s full meeting. Lansing voters will weigh in on the charter revision Aug. 7.

However, the opposition on which election date to place proposals came to a head on the second proposal: asking voter permission to sell 1.4 acres of dedicated parkland in the 1st Ward to Neogen Corp. so it can expand its operations. The property holds a parking lot and an old parks maintenance building that’s no longer in use.

Mayor Virg Bernero’s deputy chief of staff Randy Hannan said before the vote that there’s an “important economic development purpose behind this measure, to accommodate the growth and continued success of Neogen Corp.”

Karl Dorshimer, interim president of the Lansing Economic Development Corp., said Neogen is willing to pay the appraised value of the property — which is part of the 17.5-acre Oak Park near Pennsylvania Avenue and Shiawassee Street — though that has not yet been determined. He said if it made it to the Feb. 28 ballot, Neogen could “still take advantage of next year’s building season” if it would have passed.

Hewitt had concerns that selling this portion to Neogen is the first phase of ultimately selling off all of Oak Park. Jeffries shared Hewitt’s concerns, then added: “In order to garner my support, I would like to take the Feb. 28 date and move it to the August primary ballot for reasons I already stated.”

To which Dorshimer replied: “It would delay their plans. … It sends the signal that they’re delayed, that we’re putting it on hold.” He added that Neogen has “other locations in the country” at which it could expand, thus threatening future expansion on the site.

Jeffries found that last part “a real stretch” and didn’t think waiting until the August election would make a difference except for bringing in more voters. Hewitt agreed: “If we put it on the February ballot and a large portion of Democrats decide not to come out to vote, we’re not giving all voters the opportunity to vote on the property.”

Dunbar replied: “I think it’s interesting to say we want to put this off until August so everyone has a fair opportunity to vote. There isn’t anyone prevented from voting in February. … If it’s important to folks, they’ll go to the polls.”

Jeffries countered: “I’m not saying no to this — no one is saying no to this. What we’re saying is ‘Let’s have a vote in August and not in February.’ I don’t believe in a political primary you are going to get a huge turnout of people.”

The Council then voted to move it to August, which failed 3-4 with Jeffries, Hewitt and Councilwoman Carol Wood voting yes. Jeffries said he wouldn’t vote for the resolution to put it before voters unless it was moved to Aug. 7, which set off Robinson.

“I want to give our electorate some credit. If they are concerned, they understand the onus is on them to come out and vote,” Robinson said. “I happen to trust folks. I have enough faith in the electorate.”

Bernero joined Dunbar and Robinson in chiding Jeffries. “You can make statements, we can all make statements and say it’s not a vote this way or that way, but people out there are going to interpret it how they wish. Neogen will see it as a no-vote, a vote of no confidence in the company,” Bernero said. “There isn’t a community in the country that wouldn’t take their hat off for Neogen and welcome them, and we’re gonna sit here and argue about how many angels can dance on a head of a pin? People need jobs. The economy needs growth. … You can say what you want Council member Jeffries — you will vote for Neogen or you will vote against them.”

Dunbar called the question, ending the discussion, and the resolution failed 4-3, with Hewitt, Jeffries and Wood voting against. About three hours later, Jeffries announced that he had corresponded with Herbert, Neogen's CEO and president, about the vote and explained that Herbert did not perceive it as a delay tactic on the Council's part.

Next came the Waverly Golf Course and Michigan Avenue Park sale, which also ended up dying in the committee on the same voting lines. The administration wants to sell the 120 acres in Lansing Township, which it owns, for possible redevelopment, though no plans are in place for that. It’s similar to the Red Cedar Golf course proposal that passed overwhelmingly in November in that proposals to redevelop it wouldn’t come through unless voters allowed the city to sell it. Hannan said the idea is “driven overwhelmingly by the fact that we simply can’t maintain all of the park property we have.”

On this vote, Hewitt made the motion for an amendment to change the election date from Feb. 28 to Aug. 7, which failed 3-4 (Hewitt, Jeffries and Wood, again, voted to change the date). Before the resolution was ultimately voted down 4-3 along the same voting lines, Dunbar said the resolution would be taken up again to get it on August ballots.

And so ended the final Committee of the Whole meeting of 2011 for the Lansing City Council. The full Council meeting immediately after was much less heated as the body unanimously adopted one ordinance and 24 resolutions (Council was scheduled to vote on 28 resolutions, but the two ballot proposals died in committee and two other items were not ready for a vote):

  • The ordinance establishes a historic district at 300 S. Washington Square downtown for the Knapp’s building. The historic designation qualifies the developers for state tax credits on building improvements that maintain the building’s Art Deco design. It passed 7-0.

  • Placing a proposal on Aug. 7 ballots asking voters to amend the City Charter to lower the required number of yearly Council meetings.

  • Two tax incentives for ELMET North America for its facilities in southeast Lansing scheduled to open in January. For more on these incentives, click here.

  • Changing polling places for four precincts in the 2nd, 3rd and 4th wards that will take effect before the next election on Feb. 28. City Clerk Chris Swope said voters will be notified of the changes by mail.

  • Four tribute resolutions recognizing Hewitt, whose last meeting as a 1st Ward Council representative was Monday night; the 29th annual Hispanic Christmas Symposium; the Zonta Club of Lansing’s 90th birthday; and the 27th annual luncheon celebration in memory of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

  • Four separate fund transfers from various accounts: $123,000 in state and federal grants for the city’s Automobile Theft Prevention Authority Grant, about $57,000 from the Community Development Block Grant for residential home rehabilitations, a roughly $2,900 HOME grant also for residential home rehabilitations and $938.33 for Lansing police problem-solving overtime.

  • Seven claim denials and one claim settlement for properties throughout the city, totaling more than $10,000.

  • Two appointments to local boards and authorities: Karl Dorshimer to the Downtown Lansing, Inc. board of directors for a term to expire June 30, 2015 and Tim Barron to the Ingham County/City of Lansing Community Corrections Advisory Board for a term to expire Sept. 17, 2013.

  • Granting non-profit status to Lovejoy Special Needs Center Corp. in the city so it can hold charitable gaming events.

  • Establishing parking fees and fines. This resolution is formality after the Council adopted the statewide Uniform Traffic Code. The fees and fines are exactly the same as were passed in this fiscal year’s budget, Councilwoman Carol Wood said.