Election 2012: Ingham County Drain Commissioner Race Swirls in Troubled Waters

Aug 1, 2012

Michigan voters go to the polls Tuesday to cast their votes in the state primary election. In Ingham County, the most divisive contest is the race between Mark Grebner and Pat Lindemann for the office of Drain Commissioner.

Lindemann has held the office for 20 years, while Grebner has served 32 years as a county commissioner.

The office wields enormous influence over the scope of economic development in the county.  Lindemann is running on a record of environmental stewardship and cost savings.  Grebner accuses Lindemann of fiscal mismanagement, and is vowing to clean house.

Pat Lindemann’s white beard glistens in the sun as he trudges through a field of wild thistles on Lansing’s eastside.  His gaze fixes beyond this slice of the old Red Cedar golf course to the Frandor shopping center.  His excitement is palpable as he describes his plans for improving drainage and beautifying the site all at once.

“Without losing a parking space or two, we’re going to wind up having trees and flowers and color and activity and shade, and the merchants should absolutely fall in love with it, I would think,” says Lindemann.

Lindemann has spent two decades planning drainage systems.  His designs have caught the attention of engineers around the country.  His opponent in the upcoming primary, though, is paying attention to something else.

“There are two sides to Pat,” says challenger Mark Grebner.  “He’s a sincere environmentalist, but he’s squandering millions of dollars every year in ways that are just indefensible.”

Ingham County Commissioner Mark Grebner says Lindemann’s fiscal excesses are many.  He claims Lindemann spent some $700,000 each year over the last three years on attorney fees.  He also alleges Lindemann spent $80,000 worth of public funds on computer equipment.

“Among other things, one of the invoices is for repairing his iTunes library, which apparently developed some problem,” Grebner says.  “Now, I don’t know why a drain office needs an iTunes library, but his does.”

Lindemann is quick to fend off the charge.

“It’s a good one line soundbite: Lindemann is wasting money, or Lindemann is fiscally irresponsible,” he says.  “But the reality is that Lindemann is extremely fiscally responsible.”

Lindemann points to the low impact drain designs he says routinely come in under budget and ahead of time.  He says part of the efficiency comes from proactive repair.

“I save money, I build project that are world-famous; certainly nationally famous, most of them,” he says.  “We have moderate maintenance costs because of the way we build them, and even in the maintenance costs, we’re saving money.”

Lindemann counterpoints by claiming Grebner ran his company, Practical Political Consulting, to the verge of bankruptcy.  Grebner says that’s not so.  He admits he sold his business to a co-worker – who happens to be married to Lindemann’s campaign manager – but denies it was ever insolvent.

For other observers, the drain commission race is less about money than it is  priorities.

(Sound of river)

The Red Cedar River cascades over man-made rapids as it winds through downtown Williamston.  It’s a short walk from this picturesque spot to the office of developer Steve Eyke, owner and president of LaFollette Custom Homes.

Eyke says residents have known for years the river is contaminated with e-coli bacteria.  He says the local Boy Scouts used to test the water, posting a red flag whenever the stream was deemed unsafe for swimming or fishing.

“Well, every day the flag was red, so finally the Boy Scouts stopped doing it,” Eyke remembers.  “This has been five or six years ago.  The problem is still there.”

Eyke recalls a public hearing during which a Lindemann staffer boasted of their  success in collecting soil erosion permit fees from developers like him.  Eyke says when he brought up the e-coli issue, he got a “doublespeak” answer about how water quality is managed by three separate jurisdictions.

“I was dumbfounded by the lack of knowledge of this,” Eyke says.  “From a general rule, the permitting process for soil erosion is a small thing.  The broader issue that I was frustrated with was the inability of them to be able to have some kind of concrete way to work with the other agencies to protect our waterways.”

Eyke is a member of the Greater Lansing Home Builders and Remodelers Association.  They’re basing their decision to endorse Mark Grebner largely on a 2007 customer service survey, which revealed overwhelmingly negative responses about the quality of service developers get from the drain office.  The group says nothing has changed in five years.

Grebner also takes issue with Lindemann’s hires.  He asserts the drain commission is rife with cronyism.  Grebner claims the office has no licensed engineers or assessors.  And while he dismisses the notion that if elected, he’ll go in and, as he says, “fire people willy-nilly,” Grebner says he fully intends to shake up the culture.

“To set a standard that says, we don’t hire our friends,” he says.  “We don’t collect fundraising contributions from our employees.  We don’t ask our vendors to contribute tens of thousands of dollars to our campaigns.”

“Mr. Grebner doesn’t know what he’s talking about and he should be ashamed of himself,” counters Lindemann.

Pat Lindemann insists he never knew any of his staff members before he hired them.  He says each contractor he selects is scrutinized under a quality based selection system.  Lindemann flatly refutes that any of his choices were politically motivated.

“I’ve hired people that have donated to my campaign, I have hired people that haven’t donated to my campaign, and some people have donated to my campaign and I’ve never hired them,” Lindemann asserts.  “Is this a ‘pay-to-play’ system?  I don’t think so.”

The acrid tone of this race between two veterans of Ingham County government seems to have some potential voters caught in the middle. 

Years ago, Lansing PLACE Neighborhood Association president Jennie Grau worked with Pat Lindemann on the Tollgate drain project and came to admire his work.  She’s also been a strong supporter of county commissioner Mark Grebner.  Grau says she’s saddened to watch how Grebner’s campaign has taken shape, and she questions why he’s saved his charges against Lindemann until now.

“If Mark really believed that there were misgivings about the operation of the office during his tenure as a county commissioner, he had, as far as I’m concerned, not only the opportunity but the obligation to pursue those concerns and questions,” states Grau.  “And so I find the timing of his accusations concerning.”

No less significant to this race is the issue of pensions.  The drain commissioner’s pension is more than six times greater than that of a county commissioner.  Lindemann believes that’s Grebner’s real incentive for running for the office, and Grebner himself doesn’t deny that it’s a factor.

“Certainly, if it didn’t pay anything, it would be very hard to recruit me or anybody else to run for it,” Grebner concedes.  “But I admit that an important part of the calculation is that if I’m elected drain commissioner, it is a very well-paid position.”

The job pays $82,812 per year.

And that leads to a final word about fundraising.  As of the last reporting deadline, Pat Lindemann has almost $15,000 on hand in his war chest.  Mark Grebner has $1,700 on hand leading up to Tuesday's primary election.