July 20 2011 12:00 AM

Lansing City Council candidates on whether the current Council has image problems. Incumbents say it doesn’t; challengers say that’s not the public perception.

Team Bernero, Team Wood. 4-4 votes. A
canceled meeting due to lack of quorum. And a D . Are these signs of an
image problem for the Lansing City Council?

Whether this is an issue for the Council
or if it’s just a “myth perpetuated by the press,” as Councilwoman Carol
Wood contends, the perceived image by the public indicates there’s room
for improvement.

At a candidate forum Saturday sponsored
by the Lansing branch of the National Association for the Advancement of
Colored People, all 12 people contending for 1st Ward, 3rd Ward and
At-Large Council seats were specifically asked about the issue. And at
times, it surfaced in responses to unrelated questions.

“Council hasn’t been the same since I left (in 2007),” Harold Leeman said, who is running for his old seat in the 1st Ward.

More than halfway through the two-hour
forum held at Union Missionary Baptist Church, 500 S. Martin Luther King
Jr. Boulevard, candidates were asked what they made of the recent D
grade given to Council in a June Marketing Resource Group poll that
surveyed 300 likely voters. 

The Lansing Regional Chamber of Commerce
helped MRG pay for the poll, said Paul King, director of survey research
at MRG. “We (MRG) paid for it as much as they did,” King said, but he
declined to say what the poll cost.

The Chamber endorsed two at-large
candidates, Tom Stewart and Rory Neuner, who are challenging two
incumbents, Derrick Quinney and Wood, who voted against tax breaks for
the Market Place development plan next to the City Market because no
labor agreement was in place. It also endorsed newcomer Joe Manzella in
the 1st Ward race and 3rd Ward incumbent A’Lynne Robinson.

The candidates were asked Saturday: How would they improve the Council’s image?

Leeman was the first to respond, saying,
“I question anyone doing a poll — who’s paying for it? How many people
participated in it?” Leeman added that when he was on the Council,
serving with three mayors, “I didn’t make it personal when it came to

Manzella followed: “I would give the Council an ‘F.’ That’s why I’m running.”

Jody Washington said she is the only
candidate who will not jump on the image problem bandwagon, but perhaps
acknowledged it exists: “I’m the only candidate who hasn’t trashed
Council. … To do that is to play into what’s already going on.” She said
in an interview after the forum: “I’ve taken jabs at issues — not the
Council. I don’t have a problem with them arguing back and forth.”

But the incumbents on the panel all had
reservations about the Council apparently not getting along and denied
any personality conflicts.

When the question reached Wood, who is
running for her fourth term, she said she “had a number of questions”
about the poll and that Council’s image problem, if you want to call it
that, is a “myth perpetuated in the press. Ninety percent of the items
that come before Council have all been (unanimously) supported.”

Quinney, who is seeking his second full
term, said: “I too have concerns about the perception of 4-4 votes.” He
added those shouldn’t be an issue “if we can respectfully agree to

Robinson, who is seeking re-election in
the 3rd Ward, said: “I wholeheartedly agree we (Council members) come
with a different vantage point. It’s letting the process take its
course. There are a lot of 8-0 votes.”

But Jason Wilkes, Robinson’s opponent in
the general election — since they are the only candidates, the 3rd Ward
race is not on the primary ballot —  said while “you can debate” the D grade, “There is a lack of professionalism at times on Council.”

Candidates were asked specifically what
they make of the Council’s cooperation, but it also came up in several
responses to unrelated questions.

When asked about their top three
priorities if elected, Neuner said “reform Council” is her first, which
came in before “preserving public safety” and “economic development.”

“There’s an epidemic of distrust,” she
said of the current Council. Neuner said later in the forum that “the
poll reflects what I’m hearing from people” when knocking on doors.
“Whether that’s perception or reality, it’s not a grade any of us would
want to get in school.”

And 1st Ward candidate Lynne Martinez
said, “We have to change the process at City Council,” when asked about
how to retain young talent in the city and prevent “brain drain.”

“We can’t go on with 4-4 votes killing
every opportunity in this community,” she said. “Everything is in place
in this city. We need to manage the issue of: How does City Council

About 50 people attended the NAACP forum.
NAACP representatives posed seven questions from the organization and
attendees over the two-hour forum. With all 12 candidates responding to
each question, responses were limited to a minute or two. 

Two questions focused on the March 14
shooting of 17-year-old Derrinesha Clay. The first asked candidates if
they were aware of the July 5 press conference co-hosted by the NAACP
which called for a further investigation into the incident even though
the Lansing Police Department has cleared officers of any wrongdoing. A
second question asked if the candidates support establishing a citizen
review board for such matters, and all 12 of them said yes.

Candidates also were asked their top
three priorities for the city; how they plan to keep young talent in
Lansing and avoid “brain drain;” their thoughts on Gov. Rick Snyder’s
budget as it pertains to “shared resources” among municipalities; and,
to 1st Ward candidates only, how they plan to lower crime in their ward. 

The forum carried on without a hitch
until about an hour and 45 minutes in when Leeman made his closing
remarks. Before doing so, he pointed to the back of the room where
Thomas Morgan, a consultant with Byrum Fisk Communications who is
engaged to Washington’s daughter, was filming the forum with his camera

“I’d appreciate it if the person with the
camera would take it off me,” Leeman announced. “He’s a political
operative with Ms. Washington.”

Morgan acquiesced, but a day after the
forum, he said in an interview that he was filming because “we need more
accountability and transparency in government, not less.” He added that
it’s “disturbing” that Leeman “refused to be recorded in public.”