EMU, Institute of Local Politics

Every two years, Harvard University’s Institute of Politics plays host to the lucky few who either toppled an incumbent or claimed an open seat and were elected to Congress. Over the course of four days, newly elected members of the House of Representatives and Senate are instructed on the ins and outs of the two legislative bodies. They’re told about relations with the executive branch, and also offered sessions with scholars in a multitude of fields like economics and international relations.

Local leaders need this kind of education, but there are no state or local incarnates of the “Bipartisan Program for Newly-Elected Members of Congress” offered by Harvard University. Political issues have become more complex, and fewer resources are available to address the needs and wants of residents. And as Governing Magazine recently noted, many local leaders are financially illiterate.

The point is not that our elected officials are dummies who need to be seated in a classroom one more time before we allow them to touch the levers of power. Most individuals who run for office are educated, and bring their own expertise and experiences to the offices they hold. No, the point is that for a city like Ypsilanti, which has a university plopped smack dab in the middle, it should draw on the cluster of minds within its halls.

There is no apparent reason that a seminar of this kind could not be set up between university staff, more specifically the Department of Political Science, and city officials.

Lois Richardson, a member of the city council, complained about the lack of communication between the school and the city in a forum that was held on campus in January. While such a seminar would not completely solve all of the problems discussed, at least a line of communication would be opened up. And perhaps the city would start to rely on the university more – as it should. Indiana University consults local officials. Michigan State University has its Land Policy Institute which addresses issues like land use, development, and transit.

To be cost-conscious, the university doesn’t need to set up an entire research center for this purpose. All that is needed is for a tradition to be started and a commitment on the part of university staff. Many of whom are residents of the city. If it is successful, the university could easily play host to leaders from nearby municipalities like the city of Saline, Ypsilanti Township, and Superior Township.

The seminar could be hosted once in January, every other year, and last five days. Day one: economic policy. Day two: state, regional, and local partnerships. Day three: crime and public safety. Day four: financial management. Day five: technology and development. Multiple university departments could contribute.

EMU can increase the competency of its elected officials. It can also increase the connectivity between the school and the city. Members of city council could be invited to undergraduate symposiums presentations, especially those relevant to urban development or economics. And perhaps more students would attend city council sessions, or become involved in the community.

The most important matter is to address the issue of financial illiteracy. Retiree health care costs are on the rise. The depressed real estate market has reduced property tax revenues. And the city of Detroit is an unfortunate example of what can happen if its leaders don’t know what the heck to do when a bond issue comes to a vote, or the total cost of pension benefits are underestimated.

EMU and Ypsilanti can form a symbiotic relationship where members of the city council have access to those with expertise in urban issues. And university staff can become more acquainted with the problems of the community where they work and live.

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