Q: What is your previous background or experience before you joined the Michigan Suburb Alliance?A: I served as the Land Programs Director at the Michigan Environmental Council (MEC) and as a Communications Analyst (writing speeches, press releases, etc) on the Michigan Speaker of the House's staff. I also managed campaigns for state legislative candidates in there. I have a degree in creative writing and literature from U of M. .
Q: What are your goals while working for the Alliance?
A: When I started here in 2004, I set 10-year operational goals of reaching a million-dollar budget (~5x our budget then) and building an organizational endowment of at least $1M. I also wanted to grow our org membership to the point that we represented communities with a combined population larger than one million residents.
From a programmatic perspective, I am driving the organization toward being a voice for the full metropolitan area and transforming the municipal investment/finance model to allow communities to consistently deliver high quality services. This means not only ensuring adequate resources but also analyzing the role of government to determine the appropriate level for that service delivery (e.g state, region, county, city, neighborhood) and the best provider (e.g government, nonprofit, private sector, public-private partnership, etc.).
Q: What success have you had thus far?
A: Operationally, we are ahead of the game. We surpassed our population and budget goals and have secured contractual commitments to build an endowment for one of our programs that will approach $3m. We still struggle with the nonprofit finance model and have not built up an endowment that would cover our general operating functions (e.g. rent, administration, etc.)
Programmatically, we have received national and regional recognition for many our endeavors. The Redevelopment Ready Communities ® program was named by EPA as one of 100 that every state should adopt. In 2006, the Michigan Business Review named us one of Michigan's most innovative companies. Our Regional Energy Office is the first of its kind in the nation.
In terms of elevating the regional voice, we're making slow progress but have been able to convene mayors and city managers regularly to strategize on key issues like revenue sharing, labor negotiations, Millennial attraction/retention, etc.
Q: What are some of the challenges you have faced, and who are your biggest opponents?
A: Organizationally we struggle to unify the highly autonomous local governments of our region. This is predominantly due to a deeply ingrained insularity and a long tradition of local control. I myself am subject to that as a county commissioner - I look with skepticism at opportunities to collaborate, concerned with the cost to my government rather than exclusively to taxpayers as individuals. It's a problem that is endemic to the culture rather than connected to an individual or group that can be defined as "the opponent".
Thinking on the regional/municipal finance issue, our biggest challenge is with the state Legislature who fails to provide a solid policy underpinning for local governments and regularly repurposes funds that were dedicated to cities for other state level priorities, leaving the locals to fend for themselves. This doesn't seem to be a partisan issue although Democrats typically claim to best represent cities (under the Granholm administration and a Democratically controlled state House, cities fared little better than under Engler and the Republicans). We'll see how this Legislature shapes up, but given their work on Emergency Financial Management and Revenue Sharing, I doubt we'll see any progress.
Q: What are some tactics the alliance uses in order to influence legislative policy?
A: We publish a policy briefing for lawmakers called "In the Ring" that describes a particular issue from our perspective and frames solutions around values, principles and actions that can be taken at the state, regional and local levels. These documents are the product of internal research and focus groups and forums with municipal leaders. We use them to introduce an issue and advocate for change.
Our most effective tactics build off of "In the Ring" ... hosting public meetings on the subject, producing testimony for state and federal committees, facilitating face-to-face meetings between our members and lawmakers, and other more traditional organizing strategies.
We also deliberately work in coalition on most of our big issues (energy, redevelopment and transportation). We use our partners to carry messages to audiences that don't hear us well (e.g. some lawmakers have a predetermined attitude about municipal advocates, like "they only want one thing - more money!").
Q: Has your opinions or tactics on policy changed has you have become more involved in the government?
A: I've been involved in policy advocacy since I was 17 and first began working on K-12 funding issues at the state level. Through college I was an active leader in the Michigan Collegiate Council which fought for better funding for universities and for policies that protected student interests. Out of school I worked in government, I worked as an advocate in Lansing and now am both a member of government and a representative of local governments. It's hard to be more involved!
That said, I've grown with my experiences. I now shy away from mass communications tactics like press conferences and lobby days in favor of more personalized approaches (face to face meeting, e.g.). I am much more data-driven and outcome-oriented (e.g., supporting policy proposals with proof that they meet an articulated in need in a measureable way).
Most importantly, I subscribe whole-heartedly to a different negotiations process called "interest-based bargaining" as opposed to the traditional position-based negotiations that dominate public policy discourse still today. In this process, parties seek to discover and meet the needs of their negotiating partners rather than to defeat them in the advocacy wars. This attitude stems from some important training I was given early in my career at MEC by Bill Rustem who pushed me to develop what he called "strange-bedfellow" partnerships to confront land use issues. With funding from Bill and the Kellogg Foundation, I built programs between environmentalists and road builders, realtors and the NAACP. I learned quickly that few issues are insurmountable with the right approach and the right attitude. More lawmakers need to learn this lesson if Michigan is ever going to successfully recover.