Six months ago, political newcomer Jody Washington became Lansing’s First Ward representative on the city council. She ran to address serious challenges like the city’s burgeoning, long-term pension and health care deficit. Washington calls her brief tenure a 'roller coaster' and admits being disappointed. WKAR’s Mark Bashore sat down with her to explore why.
MARK BASHORE: Last week, Jody Washington alleged Mayor Virg Bernero has referred to her as ‘Eric Hewitt in drag’ to people in the community. Hewitt is Washington’s predecessor on the council and had a notoriously stormy relationship with the mayor.
Bernero’s denial—which Washington does not accept--was followed by a mysterious robo-call that alluded to the episode and attacked the Mayor. Washington says she doesn’t know who is behind the call and wants to move on.
I asked Washington if her entire six months on the council has been this crazy.
JODY WASHINGTON: From day one it’s been like this. It’s been a roller coaster, it’s been adversarial. It began with all the hoopla regarding who would president of the council. I had no idea what went on behind that. And I think that process needs some work. I asked the city attorney if there isn’t any reason that that process can’t take place in front of the public, as an open meeting. It’s just been….it wasn’t what I had hoped for.
BASHORE: Where does that leave you in July of 2012 then?
WASHINGTON: Confused. (laughs) Very confused. Everything just seems to be so adversarial, I don’t see the point. I don’t see why (the) administration and council can’t work together. I don’t understand why there can’t be more transparency. I don’t understand the attitude that ‘if you don’t do it my way, you’re an idiot.’ I’m disappointed, but I don’t think that necessarily means that it can’t be turned around and may we can go forward with some new attitudes and new relationships. I’m hoping.
BASHORE:I know one high priority of yours--your highest I gather--is the red ink the city faces long term regarding pensions and health benefits. I asked your fellow councilwoman Alynne Robinson about this and here’s part of her answer.
ROBINSON: Actually we’ve moved from spousal distributions. We’ve looked at survivor costs that we continue to carry. We’ve also looked at individuals who’ve come under workers compensation or had a settlement and making sure that that is disconnected from any long-term double benefiting.
BASHORE: The thrust of her comments were all about union concessions. How big a part of a serious, long-term solution is that? Are city paid, union benefits the lowest hanging fruit the city’s got?
WASHINGTON: I certainly understand where my colleague is coming from. It is my opinion that we cannot balance the budget on the backs of our employees.
When I went through the budget, I had serious concerns too that need to be brought up, in my opinion, during the contract negotiation. Three-hundred thousand dollars in parking for city employees, I think, is rather high. Maybe we need to not subsidize their parking. There was even a $5,000 bus subsidy. Maybe these things need not happen.
But we also have to do something to attract revenue. You know, at some point, you can only cut so far. I know that when I was raising my children, I cut as far back as I could, but then I had to take on a second job. At some point, you need to bring in more revenue. And at this point, I think we have a rather adversarial environment for businesses to come in, and I think if council were able to be a part of the process more and learn more of what’s going on, that maybe things could go through quicker. I was very hopeful with the way the mayor handled the casino project. He actually worked very well with council and he did a great job of including people and outside voices. And that’s what I was hoping for, that this is the type of thing that would happen. It doesn’t seem to be happening at this point, but I know he’s capable and I ‘m hoping that he will maybe consider the way he did that in the future with other projects.