Sept. 30 2015 12:19 AM

With four seats up, candidates work to differentiate themselves

As absentee voters receive their ballots, which were mailed Friday, the candidates for Lansing City Council are working to create clear distinctions among themselves. And while the races for the First Ward and At-Large seats are running quietly under the radar, the race in the Third Ward has heated up — attracting outside, so-called “dark money.”

Topping the races is the battle to fill two At-Large seats.

Running are Emily Dievendorf, Patricia Spitzley, Carol Wood and Harold Leeman Jr. Wood is widely expected to win reelection, after landing 40 percent of the vote in a five-way primary in August. Dievendorf landed nearly 13.5 percent of the vote, Spitzley just over 18.5 percent and Leeman just under 18.5 percent.

Wood, who is seeking her fifth term, is the only incumbent in the race. The other At-Large seat on the ballot Nov. 3 is held by Vincent Delgado, who decided not to seek reelection after being appointed last winter to replace Derrick Quinney, who became Ingham County register of deeds.

In the First Ward, one-term incumbent Jody Washington is squaring off with political newcomer Shelley Mielock Davis. Because there were only two candidates, there was no primary election in August for this spot.

In the Third, two-term incumbent A’Lynne Boles if fighting a challenge from Adam Hussain. In a three-way primary in August, Hussain bested Boles 811 votes to 666 votes. Hussain is a former member of the Lansing Parks Board.

And things in that race are heated. On Thursday last week, southwest Lansing residents found a mailer from the shadowy political group Capitol Region Progress attacking Hussain. It accused him of being a puppet of his mother, Washington. The mailer also knocked him for sending his child to Okemos Public Schools.

On Saturday, voters received a robocall from Capitol Region Progress, which reiterated the attack on Hussain.

Hussain said his daughter is in an Okemos school because his wife works there, while he works as a teacher at Waverly Middle School — creating a “logistical nightmare” in getting his children to Lansing classes. Boles’ daughter attends a private religious school in Lansing.

Hussain said the allegation that he will be a puppet — also made by Boles during a taping of of the TV show “City Pulse Newsmakers” — is wrong. (The show, which features lively exchanges between the candidates, airs on Lansing Comcast Channel 16 at 7:30 p.m. Friday and on My18 at 10 a.m. Saturday. It can also be seen Friday afternoon on He said he is prepared to fight his mother for “limited resources.”

While Boles echoed the language of the mailer, she denied previous knowledge of it.

Hussain said southwest Lansing has been “neglected” by City Hall, while Boles said that’s not true, but that there is more work to be done. Hussain said the Third Ward needs to address public safety, economic development and infrastructure issues. Boles said she has provided “bold leadership” in addressing those issues.

While the Third Ward race is a pitched battle, the other two races are a bit more subdued. The big issues at the doors, the candidates said, is a proposal by Mayor Virg Bernero to study selling the Lansing Board of Water & Light.

In the First Ward, candidates Davis Mielock and Washington had subtle differences in their opinions about the study.

“I don’t support a study of selling it,” Washington said. “I support knowing what are assets are.”

She said such a study was “business 101” and would provide the city with a full understanding of the value of its assets.

“I support the study,” Davis Mielock said.

Both candidates said they would not support selling the public utility at this time.

In the At-Large race, Spitzley and Dievendorf said they supported studies of all the assets of the city, not just the BWL. Wood said she did not support the study at all. Leeman said he supported the study, but noted there were “ways to study things but at a low, low level.”

“I think it’s irresponsible for the mayor to send mixed messages about the financial stability of the city,” Leeman said. Bernero has said the sale of the BWL could provide a onetime influx of cash to be used to pay off the unfunded liabilities in retirement programs. He has indicated that without such a move, the city could face bankruptcy.

Wood called the study and debate about the sale “irresponsible.” Her reasoning? Such talk adversely impacts economic development because the BWL is often touted as a magnet for relocating businesses. She also said the discussion of the city’s possible bankruptcy would give business leaders pause before relocating to Lansing.

As for ward-specific issues, much of the First Ward sits in a massive flood plain. Some areas were literally underwater following a flood event in the ‘70s. As a result, flood insurance has gone up and the Federal Emergency Management Agency has created a program to remove homes from flood-prone areas. The long-term strategy for one part of the ward, located roughly between Aurelius Road on the west, 127 on the North (which includes a piece of Lansing Township), Kalamazoo Street on the north and 496 on the south, is generally planned as green space. Toward this goal the city has received some monies from the federal government to purchase and demolish some of the properties in the area.

Davis Mielock said she supported the long-term strategy.

“The floodplain around the Grand River includes neighborhoods throughout the city,” she wrote in response to questions from City Pulse. “The City received a FEMA grant a few years ago to purchase and demolish homes in the floodplain. As a result, some homes in Urbandale and Baker Donora neighborhoods were purchased and demolished. I understand that some people refused the City’s offer and chose to stay in their homes. Because people have emotional attachment to their h omes, I view this as a long-term strategy. I support continuing this program as funding becomes available.”

Washington concurred with the strategy, but noted funding would be an issue.

“I support relocating people from the floodplain and demolishing the housing stock or making the homes safe for a floodplain,” she wrote in her response. “Unfortunately, the city does not have the resources at this time to purchase homes or to provide funds to homeowners to make their homes flood safe. This will need to be an ongoing issue and alternative funding should be sought.”

All City Council candidates said they supported a new program announced by Lansing Police Chief Michael Yankowski, and supported by Bernero and Ingham County Prosecutor Stuart Dunnings III, to address the heroin problem in Lansing. Under the new program, those struggling with heroin addiction can surrender their drugs and paraphernalia without facing criminal charges. Moreover, Yankowski said the police will work to get them into drug treatment programs.

Washington disclosed during the show that her brother died from a heroin overdose, "so this is very personal to me."

They also all said they supported the development of a needle exchange program to prevent the spread of HIV and other blood borne illnesses. Despite having the highest HIV rate outside of Detroit, there is not a needle exchange program in Ingham County. Federal and state HIV prevention dollars are prohibited from being used on such programs.

The candidates also chimed in on the backlog of inspections on rental properties in the city.

“The department is working to fill four vacant positions,” Spitzley said. “I believe that this should be evaluated after the code compliance division is fully staffed. If the job isn’t being done at that time then I would support giving them the resources needed to complete timely inspections including adding more officers.”

“It is critical that we have sufficient staff to reduce the lag times as well as ensuring that landlords are compliant with current registrations,” Wood said.

Dievendorf also called for more staffing.

“We need to hire more inspectors while requiring an oversight of the inspection process that ensures that good landlords are being recognized and not micromanaged and deadbeat landlords are held accountable,” she said.

Boles said that city officials should continue to investigate the root issues driving the delays.

“All cities need rental housing, Lansing is no different,” she said. “However it is important to make sure the rental stock is registered, inspected and adheres to the International Property Maintenance Code. Council should continue to work through its Ad Hoc Committee on rental housing and with the Mayor’s committee to collect data regarding the need and ability to pay for additional code compliance and premise officers.”

Hussain concurred with others in the need for more officers.

“Again, I think the answer could be additional funding for code compliance,” he said.

“It is very difficult to know for sure, however, as we have had vacancies in Code Compliance for more than 18 months and are not sure what can be accomplished when we are working at full capacity. I would like to see the positions filled, studies conducted, and determinations made regarding staffing levels.”

For Davis Mielock, the First Ward candidate, the vacancies in the department remain an obstacle to timely rental inspections.

“The division needs to be fully staffed to determine its effectiveness. If lag times on inspections continue after vacancies are filled, I support giving code compliance the resources they need to do the job including more officers.”

Washington said the issue was too urgent to wait.

“This issue needs to be immediately addressed,” she said. “We need to increase funding for Code Compliance. With a third of our housing stock being rentals and the age of our housing stock, we need to have a department that is strong and able to stay on top of the issues. We need to have inspections done in a timely manner to ensure the safety of the individuals that are renting those properties.”

This week, City Pulse offers you a look at the candidates and issues in the Nov. 3 general election. We're doing it now because of the growing importance of absentee voting, ballots for which began being mailed last week. City Pulse wishes to thank the Lansing chapter of the League of Women Voters for its contribution to our coverage.

City Pulse endorsements will be made in October.