That’s not your job

If you have the chance to see Michigan State professor Dave Ivan speak, take advantage of it. I’ve heard him give four different talks in the past year and have come away with pages of new ideas each time. He’s “that guy;” the one who inspires, challenges and engages people who work in local government. I crossed paths with Dr. Ivan in Rice Lake this week, at the annual Wisconsin Rural Summit.

The Rural Summit is a gathering hosted by Wisconsin Rural Partners. The League is one of several sponsors for this event. The summit attracts about one hundred or so city, village, town and county leaders, economic development directors and private citizens who are interested in sustaining small town living in this state. At this particular Rural Summit, Dr. Ivan challenged my notion of what is, and what is not, the job of local government.

Should local governments be in the job of negotiating commercial building leases? Most of us would say, “Of course not,” but that’s exactly what city leaders in Jonesville, Michigan are doing. Jonesville is a typical older small Midwestern city; established in the 1800’s with a current population in the neighborhood of 2,200. If you go to the web site you’ll see the usual tabs for city meetings, schedules for brush pickup and photos of a downtown streetscape. You’ll also find commercial real estate listings. According to Dave Ivan, the city is an active participant in bringing small businesses together with downtown real estate opportunities.

Like many of our older cities and villages, Jonesville struggles to keep its downtown vibrant. But unlike many places, the city doesn’t sit back and wait for commerce to happen. City leaders take an active role. And the result? Jonesville has an old-fashioned-looking, but modern and vibrant downtown with a growing business base.

Dr. Ivan rattled off other communities that went off the usual track to get things done, including a small town in Kansas where the city built and owns the one and only grocery/convenience store, as well as builds and sells housing (at cost) to attract young people.

The role of local government isn’t limited to snow plowing and brush pickup. In a representative democracy, the role of local government is whatever your citizens need it to be. Does your community need housing, but can’t attract a developer? Consider the village being the developer. Are you a “food desert,” without a grocery, or even a convenience store? Build one. Don’t wait around for an entrepreneur in shining armor or a state politician waving a grant application; take the initiative and do it.

I’d like to propose a simple four-step process for you as a village leader when faced with a problem no one seems to be solving: 1) Does this thing need to be done; would it help your community remain viable? 2) Is someone already doing it? 3) Is there community consensus that it needs to be done (consensus does not mean unanimity)? 4) Can it be done from a legal and financial perspective? If the answer to questions 1, 3 and 4 is yes and the answer to question 2 is no, then do it!

Stop waiting for someone outside your community to come to your rescue; they’re either busy rescuing someone else, or they’re just not interested in your particular village. There are resources available to Wisconsin communities through state and federal agencies, regional economic development organizations and the powerful private marketplace. But those resources don’t come to you; you have to go after them. And don’t sell yourself short; you have resources too. The most important resources you have are your sense of your community and your concern for the people who live there today and tomorrow. Those people are expecting you to lead them. Lead!

I attend a lot of meetings and conferences where big problems are discussed and a variety of solutions are displayed. There’s a common element to the solutions. What I hear over and over again are not success stories that came to the community from without; they are success stories that started from within. They were started by a village president who kept asking questions until someone said yes. A city administrator who wouldn’t accept the “fact” that “we just don’t do that here.” Or a mayor who wouldn’t quit when told, “businesses aren’t interested in downtowns anymore.”

Successful municipal leadership isn’t magic, genius, luck or a gift from the State Legislature. It’s persistence. It’s hard work. It’s an unspoken vision of a community handed to your grandchildren in better shape than it was when you took office. That’s your job.

Cast a vote for Old Abe

In a week you’ll be voting for local government offices in Wisconsin. If history’s any indication, you won’t have to wait in line very long. Spring elections in Wisconsin historically have the lowest voter turnout among the regular ballot opportunities. I alternate between seeing that as an endorsement of the quality of your work (of the federal, state and local layers of government, the public trusts local government the most) and worrying that low turnout is a sickly canary warning us that the air’s getting foul in the coal mine of democracy.

I don’t like what I hear lately when people talk about the government. Too many citizens look upon government, even local government, as “them.” The people who operate government are “someone else,” not the citizens themselves. Never mind that the village president is their brother and the Public Works Director lives on the same block. This problem of perception is bad enough at the local level, but it’s worse at the state level, and it’s downright alarming at the federal level. Even elected officials use terms like “the deep state” in a disparaging reference to a far off and untouchable, immovable government.

I had this in mind as I was driving through South Central Pennsylvania recently. A certain freeway exit caught my eye and kicked loose my memory of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. At the tail end of that short speech, the President was trying to remind his fellow Americans what we’re doing here. Standing in a cemetery, surrounded by the graves of thousands of young men, Abraham Lincoln wrapped up one of the world’s most beloved speeches by calling on the crowd to resolve themselves to remember that the whole purpose is to ensure:

“That government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Have we forgotten the meaning of those words? One-hundred and fifty-five years later is “the government” now a far-away land controlled by invisible forces, or is this still the place where we choose our government from amongst ourselves? A government “of the people and by the people,” means that our government is nobody but us.

Because “us” tends to be—well–us, it’s going to be messy sometimes. You and I will agree on which streets to pave, but we may disagree on whether a particular zoning change is good for our community. We’ll smile and laugh when we cut the ribbon for the new roundabout (okay, bad example), but then we’ll get all red-faced and loud when someone brings up that riverfront redevelopment project.

Government of the people, by the people and for the people recognizes that people are basically good, but with occasional bad moments. It’s a government that reflects our shared morality, gladly spending millions to educate someone else’s children and giving a hand to a neighbor who’s lost his job or her home. At the same time, we’ll rail against the foolishness of those new planter boxes downtown. The magic of a government selected from amongst the people themselves is that the government looks like them and acts like them, because it is them, good and bad.

Thankfully, we do not have to take up arms against one another again in order to fulfill President Lincoln’s wishes. There’s another way. We can simply vote. We can stay involved. After the election, win or lose, we can congratulate the winners, and pledge to work with them.

It’s what Abe asked us to do.