Grassroots Government: City Government

The town you hang your hat can have a big impact on your daily life. And the decisions that make that impact are made by the people who run that town.

Eight years ago, Cathy Daldin watched as historic homes in front of her own house in Rochester, located just two blocks off of the city’s Main Street, were torn down and replaced by a parking lot.

“I got mad,” recalls the mother of three and the co-owner of Shamrock Travel, also in Rochester. “And so I decided to get involved with the Rochester Downtown Development Authority (DDA).”

The experience prompted Daldin to consider a run for the Rochester City Council, and so, in 2009, she ran for one of the city’s seven council member seats. She didn’t win. Undeterred, she ran again in 2011 and was elected to a two-year term. She ran a third time in 2013, this time securing a four-year term. This past November, her fellow council members elected Daldin mayor, a position that comes with a one-year term. As mayor, she runs the council meetings and represents the city as its chief elected official.

“Being mayor has been really interesting,” Daldin says. “Local government is government at its most basic level. That’s why I like it; it addresses the basic needs of citizens.”

During her time on the city council, Daldin has helped implement a parking management system that has resulted in the construction of two new parking decks on existing lots.

“Flat parking lots just aren’t cost effective,” she says. “I can’t fix what happened in front of my house, but I can help prevent it from happening again.”

It’s just one issue Daldin has handled since joining the city council. She’s also tackled replacement of all the city’s parking meters and extensive road construction on Main Street. She has found her local government experience satisfying and has no aspirations to advance to county or state government.

“In local government, you can do a lot of great things and be independent,” she says of Rochester’s nonpartisan council election. “In addition, you get to see just how much goes into the running of a community.”

Rochester is one of Michigan’s 280 cities. A city represents one of the three main types of local government. Michigan is also currently home to 1,240 townships and 253 villages.

Richard Murphy is a program coordinator for the Michigan Municipal League (MML), a nonprofit that advocates for city and village governments across the state. He maintains that local government has perhaps the most tangible impact on the lives of residents.

“Voting for president of the United States and your U.S. senator and U.S. representative is important and absolutely matters,” he says. “However, typically it’s your local government that has more impact on your everyday life.”

He explains that it is local government that manages city services like the fire and police departments, trash removal, sidewalk maintenance, parks and recreation, senior citizen services and, in some cases, transit.

“All of these very basic, hands-on services that you use every single day are what local government is responsible for,” Murphy says.

Types of local government

Among the three main areas of local government, townships govern more than 96 percent of Michigan’s land area, according to the Michigan Townships Association, or MTA. They range in population size from 10 to more than 96,000 people, and more than half of Michigan residents live in a township.

“If you don’t live in a city, you live in a township,” says Larry Merrill, the MTA’s executive director.

As for the similarities, the legal structure under which both run is often identical.

“Both must operate under the same statutory requirements for the Michigan Open Meetings Act, the Freedom of Information Act, budgeting, planning and zoning,” he says. “They both also operate under essentially the same accounting requirements.”

Merrill notes that townships are, however, limited by law in the amount of property tax they can levy, and cities can levy an income tax where townships cannot.

“Township structure is prescribed by state law,” he says. “Cities, by their charter, can create their own government structure.”

In Michigan, townships are governed by an elected board of trustees including a supervisor, clerk, treasurer and two or four trustees, who run during a partisan election.

Bloomfield Township resident Leo Savoie decided to run for his township board in 2004 successfully earning election then and again in 2008. In 2011, he was appointed to replace the township’s retiring supervisor. He ran for the position in 2012 and plans to run again this November for another four-year term.

The Bloomfield Township board consists of seven trustees. Savoie’s role, as well as that of the clerk and the treasurer, are full-time, salaried positions. In smaller townships, those positions may be part-time.

“We handle the day-to-day operations of the township,” he explains. “Collectively, each of us on the board has one vote. My vote is no greater than the clerk’s, the treasurer’s or the other trustees’ votes.”

Savoie says his role in the township can be considered equivalent to that of a city manager. City managers are appointed in cities with a council-manager form of government. Such is the case in Rochester, where Daldin and her fellow council members recently hired a new city manager who handles the day-to-day operations of the city. “We, the council, carry out the city charter,” she explains. “Our role is to guide the city manager.”

Daldin says the council hires some of the city’s department heads, like the city clerk, but that the city manager hires the majority of the personnel who will work under him, and he or she is responsible for the supervision and management of all services in the city.

The city manager does not have a vote like council members but makes policy recommendations to the council.

The council-manager form of government is one of the other most common forms of local government, the other being mayor-council. The latter is the model of government in the city of Detroit, where voters elect a mayor separate from the council. The mayor position is often a full-time, paid one and carries significant administrative and budget authority, according to the National League of Cities. Depending on the city’s charter, the mayor may have weak or strong powers distinguishing the level of political power and administrative authority he or she will have. Another important feature of this form of government is the election of a city council with legislative powers.

Cities and townships both are responsible for the state-mandated functions of property assessment, tax collection and election administration. “I’d also add governance to that list,” says Merrill of the MTA.

As for permissive functions like fire, police, water, sewer, snow removal and the like, those vary in scope of coverage by municipality. Among the lesser known “over and above” duties Bloomfield Township provides its residents are services like the administration of passports.

“We issue thousands of passports each year,” Savoie says. “It’s a convenience for our residents.”

As for where villages fit in local government, they are considered a part of a township. “Village residents pay township taxes as well as village taxes,” Merrill of the MTA explains. “Villages are like a special tax district.”

He explains that to understand the function of villages, it is helpful to consider what Michigan looked like a century ago.

“The state was made up of a bunch of rural townships with limited services beyond statutory requirements,” he says. “Then, perhaps because a railroad station popped up and people began to settle near it, the population in certain areas became much denser. The settlement eventually needed its own police and fire department. Then it needed its own sewer and water services. The incorporation of villages provided services to thickly settled areas without having to impact the rest of the township, which needed fewer services.”

Merrill explains that villages were essentially created to provide tax services to provide for the needs of these densely populated areas.

“Today, very few villages are being incorporated,” he says. “Townships now provide more services than they did 100 years ago, and thus there is less of a need for an area to incorporate as a village.”

Because villages are part of a township, residents still pay township taxes. In addition, the township will still assess their property and administer elections. Villages maintain their own government and provide local services like fire, police and utilities. Village government typically resembles that of other municipalities and involves the election of a council and a village president.

“Just like a mayor or township supervisor, the village president may serve as the day-to-day executive, or that role may be held by a hired manager,” Murphy says. “About one third of the villages in the state have village managers.”

When explaining how a village fits into local government, Murphy likes to use the analogy of a tiered wedding cake.

“Villagers live in a village where local services are delivered to a small area,” he says. “They also live in a larger township, which administers elections and tax collection. Their township is located within a county (which provides services like road maintenance).”

Within every type of local government, residents are permitted to attend open council or board of trustee meetings, which vary by municipality in their frequency. Some meet quarterly; others monthly or bi-monthly, as is the case of Bloomfield Township.

“We meet on the second and fourth Mondays of every month,” Savoie says.

Council and board of trustee meetings always include a period for public open comment where residents can share their thoughts on a particular topic.

“Nine times out of 10, we have someone speaking during the public open-comment period,” Daldin says of the Rochester City Council meetings. “We use our meetings to approve events like a 5K walk an organization may want to hold. We’ll also update ordinances and discuss the purchase of equipment needed in the city.”

Bloomfield Township’s Savoie notes that agenda items for the township’s board of trustee meetings often include land-use topics.

“We’ll see a lot of site plans and lot-split plans at meetings,” he says. “A developer may want to build on an area of land that for years has been wooded. Residents often come to these meetings to address their concerns. Change is always difficult.”

While a city council or township board of trustees may meet privately to discuss certain topics, all voting must happen in public.

Getting involved

Within a township, village or city are a range of citizen boards and commissions that are appointed to advise the city or village council or the township board of trustees. They can include planning and zoning commissions, historic district commissions, a library board, downtown development authorities and parks-and-recreation commissions, to name a few.

Applying for a board or commission role is an ideal way to become involved with local government, Daldin maintains.

“It’s an easy way to see if you really want the commitment of local government involvement,” she explains. “Many people aren’t comfortable campaigning for an office. Others don’t have the time to commit to a board or a council position.”

Savoie encourages residents of a township to get in touch with a board trustee to learn where there may be an opportunity to become involved on a board or commission or to offer up expertise in a certain area. He notes that people who have become involved with the township planning commission in particular tend to love the experience.

“They learn more about their community and have an opportunity to make a real impact,” he says. “People tend to like more temporary, ad hoc opportunities to become involved rather than something that involves a three-year obligation.”

Check out the other installments of the Grassroots Government series:

Part One: School Boards

Part Three: County Government


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