Who doesn’t love a good ol’ fashioned performance review? ELGL loves them so much that we’re embarking on a “360 Review of Local Government.” We’re going to evaluate every single inch of the local government arena by talking to ourselves (a.k.a: other local government professionals), tech companies, journalists, professors, and anyone else who hasn’t blocked our email address.
Conan Smith (LinkedIn and Twitter) was elected to the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners effective January 1, 2005. Conan earned his B.A. in Creative Writing and Literature at the University of Michigan’s Residential College and served as a speech writer on the Democratic staff of the Michigan Speaker of the House. He directed land programs with the Michigan Environmental Council for six years before becoming the executive director at the Michigan Suburbs Alliance, a nonprofit coalition of city governments focused on intergovernmental cooperation, where he works today.
What I’m Reading: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
What I’m Watching: Black Sails
What I’m Doing: Arguing about the process for selecting a county administrator
What I’m Proud of: My amazing wife/senator/best friend
What I’m Listening to: Tricksters, Hucksters and Scamps by Amos Lee (I find this disconcertingly biographical)
What I’m Thinking: I should have been an artist
What I’m Afraid of: Being misunderstood and undervalued
What I’m Missing: All my close friends and family (it’s lonely at the, ummm, middle)
What I Want to Know From You: Did you feel guilty that time you sat out the election?
Best part of working in the local government arena. Most frustrating?
I don’t care how very different you are from everyone else in the board room politically, socially, whatever, there isn’t a person in there with you who isn’t coming to the table to make somebody’s life better. We might disagree completely about what that looks like or how to go about it, but underneath there is the very basic human nature of caring for the people around you. The best in local government is sometimes hard to find in that you have to brighten up the light, look under the rug, and parse the dustbunnies, but it’s there: everyone is brought to the table by a little bit of love for their fellow human beings.
Frustration: I have a rich distaste for our first to the post, majority rules electoral and governing processes. You wouldn’t run your family like that: “Billy ran to the kitchen first, so he gets all the food. Or, Miriam and I agree that you should have to sleep outside now, so tough luck.” This process takes a lot of the compassion out of our decision-making and causes us to close our ears to good ideas or valid concerns. We need to learn to make decisions differently if our nation is going to survive another couple hundred years.
“A” for providing great services.
“C” for addressing root causes of problems.
“B+” for stability and transparency.
- Survival. I mean, the economy tanked hard and most of us are still around. Whew.
- Creativity. That survival wasn’t dumb luck. Most of us found ways to continue delivering decent services under the most dire fiscal conditions.
- Caring Productivity. In contrast to Congress and many state legislatures, local governments are still deeply connected to the problems people face every day and are actively engaged in helping them.
- Oy, Fragmentation. At least in Michigan, we have too many units of government all doing the same thing. The distinctions between township, city and village have blurred too much. We have to figure out how to optimally use each level and type of government.
- Thinking About Complex Systems. Q: Do you solve poverty by providing housing, creating jobs, providing education or offering counseling? A: Yes. We need to figure out how to map issues and challenges better so we can design more effective, earlier interventions. This is tough, tough, tough. Our tools and training are totally insufficient.
- Funding. Yup, it takes money to do things. All things. So let’s get over our fear of taxes and remember that investing together we create stronger, healthier, more sustainable communities.
- People didn’t blame us!
- Some of us learned to be more nimble. All of us learned the meaning and value of structural reform. In good times we didn’t have to adjust quickly to challenges, and we had lots of money. While being lean has been painful, we’ve also learned how to make stone soup: our collaborations with other governments, with business and with the nonprofit community are more robust and more strategic. We need to expand on these successes as the economy recovers.
- Some of my colleagues, Ed Klobucher and Steve Duchane, just yesterday created an intergovernmental fire authority in two cities that don’t share a border. Very creative!
- Congressman Dan Kildee, when he was a lowly county serf, devised land banking to protect communities with lots of properties in foreclosure.
- My brother-in-arms Yousef Rabhi drove through a local ID project to help people who struggle to get state or federal identification to be more secure in our community. This stuff is real gold.
- Mo’ money. Duh.
- Sexier issues. I want the folks at solid waste to know we love their mojo.
- Total local control. Is it too much to ask to abolish all other forms of government?
- Why should a recent college grad choose local government as a career?
- What is the most farcical thing your elected board has voted on?
- How do you feel about wages and benefits in local government?
- Michigan Suburbs Alliance Turns 10: A Q&A with Conan Smith
- 5 Tough Questions for Conan Smith
- Commissioner Conan Smith aims to improve opportunities for all residents in Washtenaw County, MI
- Conan Smith: Why Ann Arbor doesn’t see itself as part of Metro Detroit – and why it should
360 Review – Archives
- Zeke Jackson, Village of Sister Bay, WI
- David Shaeffer, PublicStuff
- Andrew Coulson, Australia
- Kevin Knutson, Management Partners
- Anthony Toppi, ONEin3 Council Member
- Mattie Sue Stevens, City and County of Durham, NC
- Mitch Foster, Village of Kingsley, MI
- Josh Dukelow, Fox Cities Chamber of Commerce
- Ashleigh Weeden, SWEA
- Lee Jay Feldman, Southern Maine Planning and Development Commission
- Carlos Moreno, Code for Tulsa
- Andrew Opalewski, City of Troy, MI
- Shawn Ahmadi, Socrata
- Ryan Mannion, SeeClickFix
- Matt Huffaker, City of Walnut Creek, CA
- Katie Babits, City of Veneta, OR
- Chad Doran, City of Appleton, WI
- Dave Kanner, City of Ashland, OR