July 20 2013 12:00 AM

Debate stirs as public officials weigh in on Sister City program with St. Petersburg

Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero and Lansing City Councilwoman Jody Washington

(This story is updated to correct a statement by Councilwoman Jessica Yorko)

Friday, July 19 — Despite opposition from Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero, the Lansing City Council will be asked Monday to consider pulling out of its Sister City program with St. Petersburg, Russia, because of anti-gay laws there.

Councilwoman Jody Washington said she plans on introducing a resolution at the next City Council meeting on Monday to dissolve the Sister City relationship with St. Petersburg.

“We shouldn’t passively or actively in any way shape or form support a city that is persecuting a portion of the human race,” Washington said. “We need to stand strong and firm with our LGBT brothers and sisters and any place where human rights violations are being practiced.”

Last month, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law that originated in St. Petersburg that introduced fines for anyone found guilty of disseminating propaganda promoting “nontraditional sexual relations” to minors. St. Petersburg has also been the site of large antigay demonstrations.

Bernero said in an interview today that ending the program with St. Petersburg wouldn’t accomplish anything because the program is “not political.”

“The whole tenet of Sister Cities is not political. It’s not government-to-government. It’s not the official diplomatic channel of the government. It is citizens trying to build understanding and cultural awareness,” he said.

“I am in no way condoning what they’re doing. I’m specifically condemning it. I think that it is entirely legitimate for the City Council to pass a resolution condemning it and I think the Sister City Commission should pass a resolution condemning the violence and bigotry.”

Washington said ending the program is a “no-brainer.”

“I’m shocked this is even an issue. It was an absolute no-brainer to me. I thought the administration would agree,” Washington said. “I am hoping that the thinking changes and that people stand up and do the right thing. This is serious, people are being jailed, beaten and killed over these issues in Russia.”

Bernero countered that it would be better to keep the program open — and even revitalize it — to spread Lansing’s message of tolerance.

“Are we not better off keeping the line of communication open, or reestablishing it and trying to send a message of tolerance and love that will break through the horrendous things that are happening?” he questioned.

City Council President Carol Wood and At-large Councilmember Brian Jeffries both said they would support dissolving the St. Petersburg relationship. Councilwoman Jessica Yorko said a "hold" should be placed on the relationship and Lansing should reiterate to Russia that it doesn’t agree with its anti-gay policies.

Penny Gardner, president of the Lansing Association for Human Rights, an LGBT advocacy organization, said severing the Sister City program with St. Petersburg isn’t logical because there are abhorrent human rights violations with other Lansing Sister Cities and all over the world, including the United States.

“Of course I think it is horrendous,” she said regarding Russia’s anti-gay laws. “But I think if we’re going to dump Sister City relationships it would be the one in China. I don’t know how we could be Sister Cities with any other countries, or ourselves, over the human rights violations. “

Lansing also has Sister City ties to Otsu, Japan; Guadalajara, Mexico; Saltillo, Mexico; Sanming, China; and Akuapim, Ghana.

Bernero, who is running for reelection this year, recently received the rating of “extremely positive” from LAHR-PAC, the political arm of the association of which Gardner is president.