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“The Real Action Is at the Local Level”
Thoughts from Jeff Jenks, our new League president

Local Government Spark

I’ve been interested in government and public service all of my life, but in the beginning I only looked at the federal level. I heard President John F. Kennedy speak on the steps of the Michigan Union at the University of Michigan about a corps that would serve the world. To be honest, I was skeptical—I felt we could possibly do more harm than good. But, when the first exams were given, I took them. When Peace Corps called, I joined. I was a rural elementary school math, science, and English teacher in the Philippines from 1962 to 1964.

When I came back to Michigan, I taught math in the public schools and then joined the staff of Wayne State University briefly in federal relations. From that post, I moved to the state level and worked in civil rights and transportation for nearly 30 years. During all of that time, I never considered local government. It was sort of both invisible, and at the same time, all around me. I volunteered in activities that supported local government for nearly 30 years. It took a lot of time for me to understand that the real action was at the local level. The buck stopped here, and it was our responsibility to solve the problems that the other layers of government had failed on.

Motivations

To me it’s an exciting time in America and in Michigan. Today, I really see the critical importance of place—our local communities—in developing Michigan’s future. The programs that the League has developed and conducted during the past two years have laid the foundation for a real future for Michigan, based upon a community’s ability to retain a well-educated younger population. These young college educated people will allow the state to attract and retain the new knowledge-based industries, which will allow Michigan to be a 21st century leader. We have the higher education base, the research institutions base, and the health care base for future growth. But we need to strengthen local communities so that each one will be a drawing card that retains the young as well as the old. It’s exciting to travel to Calumet, or Kalamazoo, to Pontiac, to Detroit, to Hazel Park, and to Alpena—and to see the unique creativity in each location that tells me that together we can make the future happen.

What I Wish I Knew When I Was First Elected

Most people think that running local government just involves common and business sense, “If we just ran local government like a business, everything would be fine.” But if that logic and model were true, there would be no need for schools of public administration. The goal of governing is to add public value. When funds are limited, you don’t eliminate public transit, libraries, recreation programs, parks and other aspects of government that add public value. You don’t eliminate the resources that attract and retain young people. You may have to change the way you finance them. Cutting public transit may eliminate access to jobs for those working evenings or weekends.

Getting to Know the League

 

New League President Jeff Jenks and new League Vice President Carol Shafto, mayor of the city of Alpena

I got involved with the League the day after my 1999 election. My mayor took me to Lansing to meet the advocacy staff, and to the headquarters in Ann Arbor. I saw the library and its resources, and learned about the Elected Officials Academy. To be honest, I didn’t completely understand what was being said, but I knew I had resources at my fingertips—which I began to use within three months.

Meaningful Activities as City Commissioner

I think my most important accomplishment is bringing educated insight to the table at each commission meeting—to bring back new ideas to our manager, finance director, mayor, and others. I’ve been able to lobby in Lansing and see money restored to revenue sharing, and the retention of local control.

Advice to Elected Officials

Participate in the League’s programs. Many elected officials assume it’s the responsibility of the manager or administrator, and the mayor or village president. From my point of view, it’s the responsibility of every elected official. Take Elected Officials Academy (EOA) classes. Go beyond the basics. Complete all three levels and become an EOA graduate. We can also bring the classes to your community, or to a group of communities. You may hear something new, or get a new idea from what you hear.

Attend the spring and fall League conferences—bring back a new idea to your community. When attending one of these conferences, you have an opportunity to share problems informally with other participants. You may get a fresh point of view or new suggestions on how to solve an issue. More ears are better for your community. They normally save your community the cost of your trip. If you want to save your community money, make sure that you are participating in the Blue Cross/Blue Shield pool, the Workers’ Compensation Fund, the Risk Management Pool, and the Unemployment Fund. Each may save your community money.

Parting Thoughts

Your role is to add public value to your community. Take it seriously. Use the League to learn more about how to do that, and what it means. We are now in a financial crisis mode in Michigan. Many will just “hunker down” by cutting services. But we can use this crisis to take advantage of the times, be creative, seriously decide where we want to be in five years and begin that move now.

Background

Jeff Jenks was first elected commissioner in the city of Huntington Woods in November 1999. Jeff has served on the League’s Board of Trustees since 2006, and was chosen to serve as the League’s next president, serving a one-year term, effective September 26, 2009.

Goals as 2009-2010 League President

I think the League’s most important role is to help create and protect our future.

I would like to continue protecting revenue sharing with local control over how the funds are spent. I would like to see a reasonable gas tax that allows us to continue updating our road infrastructure. I would like to see a substantially expanded communications process between all appointed elected city and village trustees, managers, commissioners, and councilors. I would like to see a fairer telecommunications act. I would like to see the Legislature take on the revenue side of equation, adding about $2.5 billion to the total budget.

The League Board of Trustees must take on more responsibility as it relates to their time commitment, especially in lobbying the Legislature. When the call went out about revenue sharing, many Trustees and their police and fire chiefs came. But at the same time, many were absent. The Legislature is used to seeing League staff, many mayors, and some managers—but the rest are missing. I think the last time we were in Lansing we saved you over $60 million in revenue sharing cuts; which is close to $6 for every man, woman, and child living in Michigan.


 

 

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