Each year as summer turns to fall the Michigan Municipal League (MML) hosts a conference. MML is a group established to help cities in Michigan. Promoting positive change across Michigan, numerous services are offered. One is help with searching for a new city manager as Lowell recently experienced. An additional way to educate members is holding a conference where those attending can learn about a variety of topics including challenges communities face and how to promote growth. Experts in various municipal areas and members of communities present information to city leadership.
The location of the event changes and this year it was held on Mackinac Island. City Council members, City Managers, City Clerks and other city staff from around the state take part in listening to speakers and participating in break out sessions. This year’s conference was September 14-16.
Lowell was represented by all members of City Council, City Manager Mike Burns, City Clerk Sue Ullery, and DPW Director Rich LaBombard. While scenery and fun things to do are numerous on the island, the main objective for those who attended was how to make the Lowell community better.
Learning Through Networking
Those who attended the conference from Lowell were able to get to know each other outside the confines of city meetings. They were able to experience team building by eating together. This was a great opportunity for current City Council members to get to know their new City Manager. DPW Director Rich LaBombard is relatively new to Lowell’s staff. “The development of working relationships is important to me to learn about community resources, long standing issues, and the community as a whole.” he shares. Councilmember Jim Hodges brought past experience to the table saying, “As the “old guy” I was able to give a sense of history to why things are as they have been recently. But with Sue Ullery, Rich LaBombard and three rookie council members, it was interesting learning their thoughts about what they see as important to our community.” New City Manager Mike Burns comments, “For me the time spent with staff and council was valuable since I am so new. I had opportunities to get to know everyone better and look forward to working with them.” when speaking about having time with Lowell’s leadership.
Learning from peers doesn’t stop within Lowell’s participants. Cities small and large send delegates, which gives everyone an opportunity to gain knowledge from others. It’s a good way to make contacts and share information. Experts who have been involved in city politics for years may be able to offer advice for a newcomer. One city may be dealing with an issue that another community has been through. Oftentimes connections made at these conferences turn into lasting friendships.
Learning Through Work Sessions and Speakers
For DPW Director Rich LaBombard this was his first MML conference. Through a combination of speakers and small group sessions, he learned about seven different topics. In a general session titled “Pork to Pollination” one topic addressed ways cities can encourage economic growth. LaBombard says, “While my position as Director of Public Works doesn’t directly correlate with economic development activities and growing local business, I think it’s good to keep a pollinator attitude when local business requires services from the DPW.” This attitude is one which supports being part of an effort to work together to spread good things and experiences around a community.
Rich also attended a breakout session called The Little City That Could which touched on upgrading water and sewer infrastructure. He took information back to his staff and has shared online findings he researched on his own with them about a new water main material. This information will be discussed as the Jefferson Street project in Lowell is formulated for reconstruction next year.
City Manager Mike Burns sat in on sessions covering economic development and engaging people in the government process. It’s important for people in the community to speak up and participate in the conversation on where the Lowell area will be in the future. Citizens should feel that they can contribute to improvements just as much, if not more, as voice opinions on issues the city faces such as the biodigester and trash hauling.
Conversely, Councilmember Jim Hodges has attended nearly 10 fall MML conferences. Yet they remain beneficial and he’s still able to learn and take away information from his experience. Hodges sat in on almost 10 separate discussions during his time on Mackinac Island. He sees the future of the Lowell community in getting people involved and social media. He suggests, “The future belongs to the young and we have GREAT younger leadership (and we need to continue to involve) of those from 35 – 50 years of age, while having seniors advise our leadership. We should attempt to attract younger, female people to our boards, commissions and council. And with that … the future is in social media and perhaps co-employing with three or four other communities a “full time” IT / Media person to post at least three times per day the “news” about our community.”
The Lowell community will not continue to grow without planning for the future. Long-term goals should be established so future councilmembers and city staff have guidance. “My feelings, and I will begin promoting for, is we need to (re)develop a strategic plan for projects, community involvement, priority and budgetary focus.” Hodges says. “Our funds are limited but our energy and potential is not (limited). This (and it is still a) new City Council needs to move forward with a common and committed vision for this community.” The city does have a strategic plan it was developing and following until January of this year.
Turning Ideas into Reality
After returning from such an informative few days the hope is lessons learned and connections made will help strengthen our city. The fall MML conference gave new and experienced members of Lowell’s leadership team an opportunity to learn how to make their contribution to the community one that is positive and moves forward. The full list of questions and answers asked of those who went to Mackinac Island can be found here. All of the attendees were given the opportunity to share their experience but DPW Director Rich LaBombard, Councilmember Jim Hodges, and City Manager Mike Burns were the only ones to respond. Should anyone else submit a response we will update the link above to reflect their input.
Updated to reflect answers submitted by Mr. Burns.
Written by Amanda Schrauben.