Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero and City Councilman Brian Jeffries live around the corner from each other, but their personalities are light years apart. In turn, those differences have caused a Grand Canyonsized political gap between the Mayor’s Office on the ninth floor of City Hall and Jeffries’ part-time Council office on the 10th floor.
It’s a gap that is the overriding issue in the Nov. 5 General Election in Lansing, where the mayor hopes to knock off Jeffries and deliver a blow to the anti-administration faction led by President Carol Wood.
To Bernero — a passionate, fast-talking speaker whose brashness can be alienating — Jeffries moves too slow procedurally, conspires to block his agenda with Wood and is “two-faced” and “duplicitous” on issues. The 10-year Councilman and full-time attorney wants to know what, exactly, he’s held up and defends his record as being careful and responsible to the taxpayers.
To Jeffries — a calm, smooth-talking speaker who is criticized by some for wading unnecessarily in policy minutiae — Bernero moves too fast, is inflexible and carries himself like a “bull in a China shop.” Bernero, on the other hand, doesn’t necessarily dispute that, welcomes the criticism and says he wants to see more of it from Jeffries and Wood. “I’ve always been mystified as to where is the sense of urgency on the part of Carol and Brian?” Bernero said.
The two are up for re-election for different jobs, but Bernero has a vested interest in knocking Jeffries off the Council. Bernero has endorsed incumbent Kathie Dunbar and political rookie Judi Brown Clarke over Jeffries in the race for two At-Large seats and incumbent Jessica Yorko over Chong-Anna Canfora in the 4th Ward race. A worst-case scenario for Bernero would be that Canfora and Jeffries beat their oppo nents, resulting in merely one or two solid Bernero supporters on the Council of eight. In the 2nd Ward, a much lower profile campaign is being run between incumbent Tina Houghton (who could likely get re-elected and whom Bernero has also endorsed) and Charles Hoffmeyer.
But whereas Bernero’s opposition to challengers in the ward races may be perhaps less developed, his disdain for Jeffries has roots. Early on in Bernero’s eight-year term, he called Jeffries a “pathetic piece of shit” during a public board meeting of the Lansing Economic Development Corp. over what Bernero believed was an attempt to block the appointment of Bob Trezise to head the EDC.
Jeffries, 58, maintains to this day that he supported Trezise for the job — that all he wanted was to hold off on the appointment for a week so he could introduce Trezise to the full Council.
“That was an eye-opener for me,” Jeffries said of Bernero’s comment. “I thought Bob was a great choice.”
“That’s the kind of duplicitousness we’re used to,” Bernero, 49, said. “He’s always putting down road blocks but slapping you on the back telling you he’s your friend, on your side.”
Commission days In 1990, Bernero was elected to the Ingham County Board of Commissioners, on which Jeffries had already been serving for nearly a decade. Both members of the Democratic caucus, Jeffries remembers an amicable start.
“Nothing really stood out,” he said of Bernero, who would have been in his late 20s at the time. “We got along well.”
They served on the board together for two years before Jeffries left. He ran unsuccessfully for district judge the next year and felt a decade on the board was long enough.
Neither recalled much detail of their time together on the board, but living political almanac and former commissioner Mark Grebner, who served with both of them, does. Grebner said Bernero provided a critical vote against Jeffries, which may be evidence of the two’s first formal policy difference.
In the late ‘80s or early ‘90s, Grebner was active in changing procedural rules related to the annual selection of the commission chairman. Jeffries had served several years in a row as the chairman, which Grebner characterized as a “ruthless” power grab and annual deal-making with Republicans for the top spot. Then comes Bernero, who strolled into Grebner’s office wondering what Grebner thought of his running for a seat on the commission “He was a jerk. Self-important. Talked too much. Didn’t know anything,” Grebner said of Bernero. “At that point, the board was dominated by its evil and ruthless genius, Brian Jeffries, who kept himself in power by making agreements with Republicans. I was gradually working to undermine Brian. The moment I met Virg, I told him to meet Brian — he’d cut you a deal. I said, ‘Maybe you and Brian will find yourself kindred spirits.’” During Jeffries’ last term on the board, Grebner was able to drum up enough support for his change in rules that would have prevented a commissioner from serving several years in a row as chairman.
“The critical vote in adopting my rules was Virg,” Grebner said. “It was a decision to basically break Brian Jeffries.” Grebner also asserts that the vote is what drove Jeffries from the commission, but Jeffries disputes that.
“I don’t see myself as ruthless,” Jeffries replied. The chairmanship was decided by “whoever got the majority of votes. In 10 years on the board, I spent the last six as chair because I could garner those votes.”
As for the vote driving him from office:
“Absolutely untrue. C’mon.”
Grebner characterized Jeffries as not necessarily lacking principles, but picking which ones to use for his advantage.
“With Brian, any talk of principle is just part of the bullshit explanation for today’s action,” Grebner said. “In my experience, Brian has a lot of principles — maybe 20 that explain his vote on any particular issue. He picks five to 10 that fits this issue.
He just picks the one that fits the situation.
“He’s got a tool chest full of principles, whereas I think Virg has a sense of right and wrong — which is unfortunately underdeveloped and he runs roughshod over it.”
Jeffries responded to Grebner: “I don’t know where he’s coming from. I’m a principled person. The underpinnings of my arguments for and against (an issue) pretty much remain the same. You have to be able to change when times change, but principally, I’m the same way I was when I started.”
Randy Schafer, a Republican who was first elected to the county commission in 1984 and remains there today, said Jeffries’ and Bernero’s “personalities are very, very different.”
“Brian Jeffries was more deliberate, more subdued,” Schafer said favorably of Jeffries. “He would come and talk with Republicans and work with us across the aisles very well. I always liked working with Brian. He was soft-spoken, thoughtful. Virg is a lot more hyper. Very hyper. I like Virg, too, it’s just a totally different personality.”
‘Pathetic piece of shit’ It was five years after Jeffries left the Board of Commissioners when he got back into elected office, albeit reluctantly. He was filed for the Lansing Community College Board of Trustees, but after a week of becoming a candidate, decided he didn´t want the position for personal reasons. He ended up getting elected without campaigning, serving one full term of what turned out to be a “great experience,” he said.
Bernero served four terms on the commission between 1991 and 2001, with a gap from 1995-’97 when Grebner said he lost a Democratic primary because he didn’t campaign. He went on to serve one term in the state House and a partial term in the state Senate before being elected mayor in 2005 over incumbent Tony Benavides. Also in that year, Jeffries was elected to his first full term on Council after filling a partial term that was vacated in a sexual harassment scandal involving former Councilman Lou Adado.
Jeffries won’t say it was a turning point in the relationship, but a few months into Bernero’s first term, the mayor called him a “pathetic piece of shit” in a public meeting. Bernero accused Jeffries of blocking Trezise’s appointment to head the Economic Development Corp., which Jeffries denies. But the interaction still resonates with the Councilman today.
“My expectation, based on my knowledge of him, which wasn’t real deep, was that the relationship had been positive,” Jeffries said of Bernero. “What I expected turned real quickly.”
That board meeting was “an eye opener for me. I didn’t expect that. I was stunned in a sense, for one, because it was such a public meeting. Two, I was trying to figure out what I had done to give rise to that response. My response was that if there are concerns, at least at some point let’s have conversations privately. Today, I still don’t know what (the concerns) are. I thought Bob was a great choice.”
Bernero’s concerns are deep seated. He lumps together Jeffries and Wood — widely considered the anti-Bernero, especially since she ran against him for mayor four years ago. Bernero calls the pair “chaos and control” and “brains and brawn,” as Jeffries (Chaos and Brains) attempts to confuse an issue by asking tedious questions and Wood (Control and Brawn) controls situations by ginning up neighborhood angst against the administration and getting people to turn out against an issue.
“Lawyers are trained to split hairs and appreciate process,” Bernero said. “To me, the process is only as good as the end result. You can’t live for the process, but Brian can. He loves the tedium. The process is not irrelevant, I’ll admit that. But to me, they are willing to absolutely get bogged down in the process and let things die, and I am not.
“My point is: He’s a tedious S.O.B. that we no longer need. We don’t have the time for it. We need to move on. Vote yes or vote no but take a vote.”
As for the S.O.B. comment, Jeffries said, “I’m not going to waste my time responding to that silliness. That’s the basis of why we have a lot of the personal issues we have now.”
He defends his appreciation for the process and denies that he colludes with Wood on issues.
“I spend a lot of time and I take very seriously issues presented to me as a Council member. Whether it’s a sidewalk repair, a grant, how we’re going to find more money for police and fire, I do my independent review of those issues. I come to a conclusion of what’s in the best interest of the city. I don’t collude with other Council members to figure out a way I can obstruct initiatives from the mayor. I don’t have time for that. I have absolutely no desire to do that.”
Wood, meanwhile, says the idea that she and Jeffries work together against the administration has been “perpetuated by the media. It’s more to do about something that isn’t even there.” She says most of the time the Council is on board with the administration’s agenda and she won’t apologize for taking time to understand issues.
Jeffries also compares the administration/Council relationship to that of a family. “It may happen from time to time in anybody’s house you’ll have disagreements. We’re going to have disagreements. Ninetyfive percent of the time we’re in lock step.”
The projects Yet Bernero points to several projects where Jeffries was not in lock step with the administration. (He said Randy Hannan, his chief of staff, even keeps a list of projects he feels Jeffries and Wood have tried to block.)
A few that Bernero says specifically stick out since 2008: Frances Park sidewalk improvements; redevelopment of the former YMCA building downtown; the 2011 public safety millage; a sidewalk millage proposal; and selling the Oliver Towers building to Davenport University.
In March 2008, Jeffries voted with Wood, Councilwoman A’Lynne Boles-Robinson and former Councilman Eric Hewitt against the city’s application for a nearly $500,000 state grant to install a pathway at Frances Park. When it was reconsidered by the Council later that year, it passed unanimously, but the grant application was denied by the state Department of Natural Resources. According to previous reports, the grant was denied due to concerns about the pathway’s proposed proximity to the road and lack of vehicle access.
Jeffries said on a recent taping of “City Pulse Newsmakers” that he opposed the grant initially because he felt area neighborhood groups were “disenfranchised” and left out of the discussion. He then pointed to his support for it the second time.
Bernero ties that together with a proposed sidewalk millage that failed to make it out of a Council committee last year that would have levied a half-mill on properties specifically for sidewalk improvements. He also said Jeffries helped create the problem of a lack of sidewalk funds on a vote Jeffries made that changed sidewalk repair assessments from 100 percent paid by property owners to a 50/50 split with the city.
“He and Carol are always talking about neighborhoods, but I’ve got little old ladies falling on their face” because of poor sidewalk conditions, Bernero said. “It’s a problem we’re waiting to be sued over at anytime and we have.”
As for the proposed sidewalk millage, Jeffries expressed concerns that the city is reaching a “tipping point” in terms of fees and assessments that might drive people out of the city.
“So are crappy sidewalks,” Bernero countered.
Speaking of millages, Bernero called Jeffries’ opposition twice in 2011 to putting on the ballot a public safety millage for police, fire and roads “one of the worst votes ever. Egregious. I hope voters hold him accountable for it.”
Jeffries explains his no votes — voters turned down the millage request in May 2011 but approved it in November 2011 — as a matter of being concerned with how the money would actually be spent if approved. He also supported resolutions just before the public vote saying the Council supported the millages and that new rev enue would “supplement,” not “supplant,” funding levels for police, fire and roads.
Bernero said it’s an example of how Jeffries is “eternally conflicted, trying so hard to be on both sides of the issue.”
“I’ve been very clear, I supported both of those millages,” Jeffries said. (Bernero wondered whether he voted for them at the ballot box, which Jeffries said he did.) “I was very consistent in how I voted. Public safety is my top priority. If police and fire did not believe that, they would not have given me their endorsement.”
Then there was the controversy over the city’s proposed land swap with Davenport University downtown. Bernero proposed giving the school the eight-story Oliver Towers building and adjacent parking lot downtown in exchange for property at Cherry and Kalamazoo streets. Jeffries — along with Wood, Derrick Quinney and Eric Hewitt — voted against giving the proposal a public hearing after Lansing Community College made the city an offer instead. Davenport ultimately backed out of the deal and repurposed a former bank building on Allegan Street. The Lansing Housing Commission, which had been in Oliver Towers, purchased a portion of the former campus last year where it’s now based.
Also in development-related news, a negative campaign mailer that’s circulating and paid for by a group called “Capitol Region Progress” refers to him as “Job killer Jeffries.” Specifically it refers in part to a proposal to redevelop the former YMCA building downtown.
Jeffries said he supported the original brownfield plan to redevelop the site into a mixed-use space, but he opposed an amended plan calling for the city to subsidize an attached parking lot. But while the plan was going through the committee process, MLive.com reported that the project developer, Dan Essa, owed over $70,000 in back property taxes to the city and Ingham County, which violated an executive order Bernero had signed. The news led to a public apology from Trezise, who had become president and CEO of the Lansing Economic Area Partnership.
Still, Bernero criticized Jeffries for helping delay the project. Jeffries sat on the Council’s Development and Planning Committee that year, but it was chaired by Councilman Derrick Quinney.
“We don’t have time to get bogged down in process, and he loves it,” Bernero said. But didn’t the “process” reveal issues with the developer’s taxes? “He was late paying his property taxes. Whoopee. Accidents happen. It’s the economy.”
There are more disagreements, such as proposals to sell a downtown parking ramp to LCC; how to fix the city’s precarious Tax Incremental Finance Authority fund and the famous Market Place meltdown from 2010. For the past two years, Bernero has vetoed line items in the Council’s amendments to his budget proposal that Jeffries supported.
But overall, Jeffries gives Bernero a “favorable” rating as mayor. He and Wood both say that they agree with the administration on over 90 percent of issues that come before the Council. Jeffries said the city has plenty to be proud of, particularly since the economic meltdown that started five years ago.
“As a Council, we’ve been very supportive of a lot of his initiatives, despite the rhetoric and perception being created out there,” Jeffries said. “Connect the dots: How could all that be accomplished if there is all this conflict going on? There’s a lot of good things we can point to in really tough times.”
However, pointing to an idea Bernero had about consolidating Lansing’s and Lansing Township’s fire departments without input from the township, “We need a foundation of trust and confidence. Virg likes to move fast. That’s a piece that gets lost a lot and causes some concern.”
Yet Jeffries’ criticism is a point of pride for Bernero, especially when you get him started on Lansing Township.
“How about dissolving all of Lansing Township? That’s my idea. Police, fire, you name it. Whatever it is, let’s absorb it,” Bernero said. “Please. Too fast? It should have been done decades ago. Too fast — that’s typical.”
At the end of the day, Bernero insists his differences with Jeffries are not personal.
“As a neighbor, he’s wonderful,” Bernero said. “He’s just a terrible Councilman.”
“Eyesore of the Week,” our look at some of the seedier properties in Lansing, will return next week. If you have a suggestion, please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call Andy Balaskovitz at 999-5064.