Fifty Nifty Takeaways
What do we hope to learn from this series? We hope you will gain a better understanding of the unique characteristics of local government in each state, we hope you will learn that there are others like you who are motivated to make a difference through the public sector, and we hope you will learn that it is best to learn from others’ mistakes than yours.
P.S: Contribute to the Fifty Nifty project by sending those names in your lil’ black book to ELGL.
Our Take on Michigan
The mere mention of local government in Michigan generates discussion about the financial crisis in Detroit, and the impact on surrounding cities. (Pontiac was the latest city to land in the crosshairs of the New York Times.)
ELGL has launched an effort to increase our presence in the state. Here’s some information on that effort: Pure Michigan: ELGL Launches in the Mitten State, The Assistant: Victor Cardenas, Novi, MI, and 360 Review with Andrew Opalewski, City of Troy, MI.
With that understanding, the Fifty Nifty returns to interview Hayley Roberts, Michigan Suburbs Alliance. Before we talk with Hayley, here’s a quicker primer on the Mitten State.
Michigan is the ninth most populous and 11th most extensive total area. Its capital is Lansing, and the largest city is Detroit. Michigan’s personal income tax is set to a flat rate of 4.25%. In addition, 22 cities impose income taxes; rates are set at 1% for residents and 0.5% for non-residents in all but four cities. Michigan’s state sales tax is 6%, though items such as food and medication are exempted from sales tax. Property taxes are assessed on the local level, but every property owner’s local assessment contributes to the statutory State Education Tax.
Here’s a look at some of the “interesting” laws enacted by other Michigan cities.
Detroit: Putt-putt golf courses must close by 1:00 AM.
Grand Haven: No person shall throw an abandoned hoop skirt into any street or on any sidewalk, under penalty of a five- dollar fine for each offense.
Soo: Smoking while in bed is illegal.
Wayland: Anyone can keep their cow on Main Street downtown at a cost of 3 cents per day.
Hayley Roberts (LinkedIn) is the communications director for the Michigan Suburbs Alliance, where she helps tell stories for the organization, its cities and the region. A Michigan native, she worked in PR in Atlanta before returning home to earn a Master of Arts in Digital Rhetoric and Professional Writing from Michigan State. She worked in usability and accessibility research and consulting prior to joining the Suburbs Alliance in 2010.
Best piece of advice you received from your parents:
How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.
In a dream world, which bands would headline your retirement party?
I’ve learned to embrace my teeny bopper past, so I can say with no shame that it would have to be Britney Spears and NSYNC.
Before I die I want to… Be a guest on Rachel Maddow.
Three most influential books in your life:
- Imagined Communities by Benedict Anderson
- Lucky by Alice Sebold
- North to the Night by Alvah Simon
- Barack Obama
- Caity Weaver (Gawker)
- Amy Poehler
- Abigail Adams
- Rachel Maddow (because then she might invite me to be a guest on her show)
Describe the inside of your car: Recyclables, receipts, and shoes.
What’s the meaning of life? Leaving something better than you found it.
Q and A
Give us three bullet points that best describe local government in your state:
Starved: Budgets have been slashed to balance the books of higher levels of government, and property tax revenue is still down from 2008. At the same time, anti-tax movements and outdated legislation has impeded cities’ ability to pursue replacement revenue.
Creatively efficient: As much as possible, cities have taken charge of their own fiscal destinies by consolidating services with neighboring municipalities, restructuring, and generally doing more with less. I’m constantly in awe of the dedicated officials who make hard decisions but always keep the best interests of residents in mind, somehow managing to stay afloat.
Fragmented: While individual communities are doing all they can on their own, metro Detroit particularly is famous for its mosaic of small units of government—an arrangement that is rooted in our complex racial history and remains divisive to this day. Helping communities see themselves as interconnected is part of what I do.
We’ll assume you didn’t grow up dreaming about a career in local government. What was your dream job as a 12-year old? What was your first local government job? How did you end up in local government?
Growing up, I was pretty certain I was going to be an MTV VJ and then a news anchor. Even when I decided I’d rather do community-based work, I was more focused on traditional causes like women’s rights. It wasn’t until I decided to move back to metro Detroit from Atlanta that I realized I wanted to help improve peoples’ lives by improving their communities.
What are your top three career accomplishments?
So much of a communications professional’s job is to promote others’ accomplishments—it’s hard to think about what I’ve achieved in terms of my personal career! That said:
- A Bankrupt Narrative: It was just a blog post, but it represented a unique take on Detroit’s bankruptcy in the wake of the filing. It was our most popular post ever, and was picked up by other outlets in our region.
- Michigan Transportation Odyssey: Now an annual event, the inaugural version was a three-day trek from Detroit to Traverse City via transit—no small feat here in Michigan. We blogged, tweeted, and stopped for events in major cities, and it resulted in about 50 news articles across the state, all focused on the need for better public transit and an RTA in metro Detroit.
- Breakthrough Transit Champion nomination: Our region’s primary transit advocacy group, Transit Riders United, holds an annual Regional Transit Awards event. Though I didn’t win this award, I was surprised and honored to be recognized for my work in this area. As I mentioned, communications staffers usually nominate others for awards.
We often learn from our mistakes. Name one or two career mistakes that you have made that you think we could learn from.
- When I first started my current job, I was, in retrospect, pretty desperate to prove myself. It’s an understandable feeling, but I wish I had been more self-aware and less defensive. For example, in coalition meetings I hadn’t yet learned how to constructively phrase things like “this will never fly with my boss, no way” as “let’s talk about how we can make sure this meets the interests of our respective managers.” I was overly concerned with asserting my own place at the table, and not yet skilled at demonstrating my value.
- I’ve learned that there is always what I call “invisible context” in issues of governance, especially around collaborative efforts. As a young person, I have limited knowledge and, personally, no real interest in age-old conflicts or tension between communities. But when it comes to doing my work, I have learned that it’s important to be aware of these histories and relationships—otherwise you’re not working with all the relevant information. What makes sense for one community might outright offend another, or two communities that seem like natural partners might have high-level staff that don’t get along. These things matter and it’s better to investigate in advance than to find out too late that you’ve missed important context.
Our experience has been many of our friends, family, and neighbors are not well versed in what it is we do in local government, many think we are a “planner” or “mayor.” Has this been your experience?
My family has no clue what I do, but they’re very proud! Admittedly, my job is even more difficult to understand than someone who works directly for a local government. I usually tell them I help local governments work together, and they in turn tell people that I’m helping Detroit
How can local governments better communicate their role in the everyday lives of the community?
You have to meet the people where they go! These days, that’s online. Some local governments do a really excellent job on Facebook, Twitter, and even Instagram, helping instill pride in their community and talking about their efforts in support of residents’ daily lives. But most can do better. I also think having a clear, easy-to-use, attractive website should be a top priority of any government. It doesn’t need to be cutting edge, but it should inspire confidence in the institution and not look like a Geocities page from an intro to HTML class.
More cities are hiring communications or community engagement staff, and that’s a good thing—but they need resources to go beyond responding to citizen concerns. I get that it can be politically tricky to spend public funds on what’s seen as marketing, but hopefully we start to see value in this type of investment. Beyond their own spaces, governments can also work with community partners like nonprofits and media, to better share stories about their work.
I also think we need to fearlessly embrace our belief in government’s potential to help people, to counter the anti-government rhetoric that has been so successful. We should stop constantly apologizing for government, or acting like we agree that less is always better. In reality, people are very willing to invest in services that improve their lives—but the world “government” itself seems to inspire skepticism. So we play into it, highlighting efficiencies and cost-cutting—but we should intentionally elevate stories that clearly show how government is really people working together.
Would you encourage your family and friends to consider a career in local government?
Absolutely! I would tell them that as Congress stalls and state governments continue to balance their budgets on the backs of cities, it’s increasingly up to local leaders to make meaningful change. As a local government staffer or an elected official, you get to impact your community often in real time, and that is not only rewarding but significant as we tackle huge challenges like funding, climate, and transit. I would also tell them that it’s time for fresh blood—I have so much respect for people who have done this work for years, but also feel that the younger perspective is critical to making progress.
Hypothetically, if we find ourselves interviewing for a job in front of you, talk about three steps we can take to make a good impression.
- Be yourself. It’s easy to get caught up in the job interview performance, and it’s important to be appropriately formal, but remember that the hiring team is going to go through many interviews that all meet those standards. It’s okay to show a little personality!
- Be prepared with a genuine weakness AND a time you’ve messed up to talk about. When someone says their greatest weakness is being a perfectionist, I’m thinking that that person is not very creative and also kind of a liar! When someone can’t come up with a mistake to share how they handled it, I automatically think that person is not very self-aware.
- Research beyond what you need to know about the organization for the interview. People will act very excited to share a blurb from the homepage, or a factoid from one level down, and that’s great—it shows you Googled us and looked at our website. But it’s more compelling when you can tell someone has spent some time learning and thinking about the organization, and is able to draw on it as appropriate in the conversation. For example, if transit comes up and you mention a blog post we did about it, that’s more impressive than being able to recite our mission.
Mentoring is such an important part of local government. Name three of your mentors.
- My boss, Conan Smith, has taught me so much about how government (and politics) works, and how to identify points of change in that system. He is also somewhat of a leader factory—everyone who works under him seems to go on to great things!
- My former colleague Melanie Piana, who used to be our associate director and is also a councilperson for the City of Ferndale, has provided me so much practical guidance. She is all about project management, which is not my biggest strength. (Hey, I’m a creative!) She is also a role model: A strong woman who ran for office even though it was not necessarily in her nature; a local official and regional advocate; and someone who works hard but maintains a rich personal life and is always trying to improve.
In 2018, local government will be… Embracing regional tax base sharing. Hey, I can dream!
What question(s) should we have asked you?
Don’t tell my parents, but I would have rather shared advice from my G’ma. 🙂
- Hayley Roberts on Her Job, Internships, and PW
- Guest Blogger: Hayley Roberts – Metro Detroit Living
- Can Southgate become an anchor for regional sustainability
- Michigan Suburbs Alliance To Build Database Of Local Government Opportunities