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The same, only different. . . that would be my description of today’s MML, “the League.”
When I first became active as a newly minted councilmember, my mentor told me to take Elected Officials Academy (EOA) classes to learn about my new job. I did, and thankfully, the same opportunity exists for all elected officials, and is still a major focus in League operations. Our jobs are like parenting—big decisions, big consequences, no owner’s manual. The EOA fills that void and helps us all stay focused and out of trouble in new and ever-changing ways. The curriculum is slightly different than it was eight years ago—movie making and culture as economic development tools, even expanded TIF resources and planning tools not imagined in Michigan 10 years ago. The venues also are different as more and more communities stretch their resources for on-site training of their officials, or in partnership with surrounding member communities.
Partnership brings to mind another new facet of the League. Increasingly, instead of fighting with other advocacy groups over “the same nickel” in Lansing and Washington, the League is joining forces to articulate a shared vision with groups of similar interests. We did this as part of the Fiscal Responsibility Project and again to defeat a statewide ballot proposal. We’ve partnered with a number of statewide organizations not only for advocacy, but also educational opportunities. For instance, through a grant from MSHDA, we sponsored a series of Public Policy Forums to familiarize community leadership with the foundations for building a successful community in the 21st century. That project led to the Center for 21st Century Communities, which will provide an entire matrix of tools and solutions for actually realizing a “sense of place” vision individualized for each of our hometowns.
Creating a vision of a sense of place in each of our communities has not historically been a mission of the League. However, knowing that as elected officials more of us find it easier to be mechanics or editors than visionaries, our same, only different League is offering tools to create, articulate, and realize that vision—the place-making that lets everyone visiting or living in our hometown know exactly why each of us is a special place in Michigan.
This is more than a One-Pager Plus. Although those one-page tools, and numerous handbooks published by the League, are available on more than 60 subjects, the new League assists us with the broader, wider, more spectacular vision. It allows us to follow the advice written on my coffee cup, “Dream great dreams and make them come true.” Dreaming is easy. It’s the coming true part that the League helps bring into focus.
In fact, this same, only different League brings the dreaming into focus for the whole state through our Prosperity Agenda. In addition to the assets we know must be preserved in our communities, such as public spaces, parks, good schools, safety, and intergovernmental collaborations, the League’s spectacular vision of prosperity annotates elements less common in Michigan communities—reliable public transit, sustainable development, green initiatives—all things we want to do, but need legislative assistance to implement.
his Prosperity Agenda is a reflection of our mutated “organizational DNA.” It is to the League as blue or brown eyes are to an individual. It is about structure and substance, not about symptoms. Focusing on the future is a significant part of who we are, what we do, and how we look, feel and act—locally, statewide, and in the federal arena.
As we advocate for better communities in all of those arenas, our focus and tools are far different than they were even a few years ago. We, as members, no longer get a simple reactive report on what laws have been passed and what the consequences will be to us. We hear, in advance, what the Legislature is proposing. The Legislature hears, in advance, through our Lansing staff and our members (you and I) what the consequences of those actions could be for local communities.
We have become unabashedly and aggressively proactive in defense of our citizens and their community welfare. The methods we employ for this advocacy are changing every day. We’ve had a Lansing staff for a very, very long time. However, when I asked former Board member, Alex Allie, to describe major changes in the League over the last five years, his reaction was, “The Lansing presence. Before, nobody in Lansing knew who we were. Now, everybody in Lansing knows who we are.”
The Lansing presence is multi-faceted. First, there is the new and improved Capital Office. Our location and the configuration of the facility make it a coveted meeting space for various sub-groups of legislators and staffers. That builds relationships. Then, there is the talented, driven, and highly capable team of specialists assembled to tell our stories. Each has a unique background, personal network, and skill set that makes them an expert representative of our interests. Their grit and engaging personalities make them a force not to be underestimated. Add to that, all of us who link to that “Contact Your Legislator” to put our own personalization on the message representing over 530 local communities and we become part of the Lansing presence as well.
Each of us being part of the Lansing presence illustrates the transparency of each of us being The League. As an organization, the League models what we are told each of our own citizens want—openness, inclusion, and an opportunity to be involved. It’s a good lab for teaching us how to operate in these challenging economic times. There are League committees, ad hoc and ongoing, individualized opportunities for service to the League through our regions, Board of Trustees, issue and governance committees, EOA board and seminars, membership development, or advocacy testimony, letter writing, emailing, or calling a legislative official. Do we provide as many opportunities for our citizens as our model organization provides for us?
As a model for communities and reflecting conventional philosophies for hard times, six years ago, the League employed 67 people. This year’s League staff total was 38. We are doing more with less, and doing it better. It’s the same, but different. We use social networking tools to reach more people at a time. We use the Internet. We use mail. The changes to The Review, timely articles, themed issues. It’s evolutionary—and revolutionary, symptomatic of the organization showing us the way to a brighter future.
The flyleaf of our directory says, “The Michigan Municipal League is an association of Michigan communities organized for the study and solution of problems of local government.” Even this mission is the same, only different from what it was only a few years ago. Now, we’ve learned that the best way to solve problems is to anticipate them and make the changes necessary to avoid them altogether. So, you see, it’s the same, only different League leading us as we forge ahead, together, to build Better Communities. Better Michigan.
Robin Beltramini is a councilmember in the city of Troy and the 2008-2009 Michigan Municipal League President. She may be reached at email@example.com