Lots of Central Michigan University students have an interest in what happens in the city of Mount Pleasant. Two of them will now have a say, as newly elected city commissioners.
CMU senior William Joseph, from Brighton, Michigan, and graduate student Kristin LaLonde, from Beal City, Michigan, won seats on the commission in the November election. The commission consists of seven citizens elected at large for staggered three-year terms. Candidates must live within the city limits.
LaLonde, a health sciences librarian at MidMichigan Health, turned to local politics to make "positive, impactful change in the community." She serves on the Isabella County Human Rights Committee and the Isabella County Recycling Center Advisory Board.
She received her undergraduate degree from the University of Michigan-Flint and a master's degree in library sciences from Wayne State University before pursuing her master's degree in public administration at CMU.
Joseph has his sights on city-university relations and recycling initiatives. He has served on the Mount Pleasant planning commission and worked for the city's water department.
He has held several positions within CMU's Student Government Association and on various committees at the university. Joseph plans to graduate in December with a double major in mathematics and political science.
LaLonde's and Joseph's terms begin Jan. 1. They answered a few questions for CMU News.
What motivated you to run for office?
Joseph: I first started thinking about running for City Commission last year. I completed the Citizen's Academy of Mount Pleasant, I started working for the city and got onto the Planning Commission. I had previous experience with student government, so I knew I liked that kind of work. I had people tell me I should give it a shot. Several told me they saw how passionately I worked and that having a student voice on the city commission would help fill the need for that position.
LaLonde: I realized there's so much opportunity in local government, and it's nice because I'm working to improve my community with my neighbors. We all live in this small town; in theory we should mostly want similar things. I wanted to make a change, I wanted to do something positive, and local government was my avenue. You see a wide variety of socio-economics when you work in the library, so you can get a good perspective on needs for the community. I like solving problems. Doing the Citizens Academy also helped motivate me to work with the city.
What are some important issues facing the city, especially relating to the university?
Joseph: The Crawford Road sidewalk is something fellow students and I advocated for last year and tried to get traction with. You also have this new zoning ordinance that says Lansing, South University and South Franklin are going to have properties that will become non-conforming uses as student rentals. If it is passed as is, that might be a concern for university students.
Another issue I want to tackle is access to recycling options for rentals, which I ran on. Not just student rentals, but all rentals. If you live in a big complex, you might have access to a dumpster, but where is the recycling? I think that is something to look at with the sustainability of our city in mind. If we can get people interested in recycling, it will be better for everyone.
LaLonde: Mount Pleasant has a bit of a brain drain. There are these amazing people who come to town and double the size of the city for nine months out of the year, and once they graduate, most leave to get jobs elsewhere. That's a big problem. We need to try and motivate young people to stay here. That will involve diversifying our economic base so people can find full-time work with benefits and a living wage.
Mount Pleasant doesn't have much of a brand. If you tell people where you're from, they're likely to say two things: "Central" or "casino." These institutions are part of Mount Pleasant, but they aren't the entire city. If you ask residents why they moved here, many will talk about the small-town atmosphere with large commercial amenities, or how it's not too far to visit popular Michigan destinations. We don't have traffic concerns, crime is relatively low, and Mount Pleasant is a good place to raise a family.
Who at CMU inspired you or steered you toward seeking office?
Joseph: I've had a lot of professors help me. A lot of them are retired now. Won Paik, who retired from the political science department last summer, encouraged me to run; Blaine Stevenson, who retired from the sociology department; Stephen Scherer, formerly in the history department; and Ted Clayton, who teaches political philosophy, was very supportive when I told him that I was running. Also, several students encouraged and supported me. I was on the phone on Election Day calling up friends and reminding them to get out and vote. They came through for me.
LaLonde: The CMU Democrats. They did most of my campaigning. I worked with them, and I'd credit most of the votes I got from their efforts.
In what role do CMU students fit into local politics?
Joseph: The students often get referred to as "part-time residents," but really, they're here nine months out of the year — they spend the majority of their time in Mount Pleasant. Most don't pay property taxes like full-time residents, so I understand how some might think students don't belong at City Hall, but that doesn't change the fact the decisions made at City Hall affect them just as much as other residents.
Mount Pleasant would be a much smaller town if students weren't here. To say that students don't have a role in local politics is shortsighted. We're a part of this community just as much as everyone else.
LaLonde: CMU students are a big demographic in the city — almost half the population of our city when they are on campus. Their concerns should be taken into account. That isn't to say they're the only group to factor in, because many other groups live here and are equally important. Students spend money, pay taxes — either through sales tax or indirect property tax through their landlords — so they're financially invested.
In terms of what students can do, Will Joseph is a great example of a more traditional student being involved with the city and on the Planning Commission. If you want to be on a commission, you just apply. You don't necessarily need to have a ton of experience, either. And of course, attending the Citizens' Academy is a great way to get started.
The biggest one, though is going to meetings and expressing opinions. People don't do that unless they have a very specific problem that they want dealt with. This creates opportunities—since you're one of the three or so people there expressing your mind, your opinion suddenly is very important. I can't overstate the importance of feedback.
Why is it important to you to be involved in your community?
Joseph: At the base of almost every job I've ever had, my role has been to help those around me, whether it's been finding a book or making sure people have clean water. Serving as a planning commissioner or city commissioner is the same thing, just a different role. It's about caring for the people around you.
To be happy yourself, you have to help others. This is my way of doing that. I like dealing with policy, seeing problems and trying to develop solutions. For me, it's just what keeps me going.
LaLonde: You should take control over your environment. Getting involved with the community is a way to make that happen. If you're upset about homelessness, there's a way you can directly help that by getting involved with the ICRH or soup kitchen.
People have a lot more power than they think they do. It helps you build empathy toward other people. When you don't have direct contact with people, you don't fully understand their position. Getting involved in community organizations helps get you involved in other's lives in a positive way.
How did your experience at CMU help prepare you for your new position in the community?
Joseph: My time within student government really helped me to learn how to navigate a governmental atmosphere and how to address disagreements in a public way. CMU gave me opportunities to learn how to work within bureaucracy to steer policy and build relationships. I made some mistakes in student government, a few boneheaded moves that might have upset some people, but if I hadn't done it, what would I really have learned?
LaLonde: Put simply, I'm pursuing a master's in public administration from CMU and it's certainly helped. I'm taking a public budgeting class, and it's been incredibly useful learning about where money comes from and how it's managed — how you do capital campaign funding, etc. I'd add that being a part of campus helps add perspective when bringing CMU concerns to the city.
What does leadership mean to you?
Joseph: Leadership is understanding where everyone is at and being aware of what would be best for the group. You have to make tough decisions sometimes that aren't going to be great for everyone. It's also about setting an example. Sometimes you have to sacrifice some of your own interests or emotions to represent the expectations the community has set forth.
LaLonde: Empathy, cooperation and constant feedback on both sides. I've been in management and public leadership before and will say this at the risk of sounding redundant: empathic leadership is important. It's not top-down, it's engaging with people directly, taking into account their experience and using it to solve problems in the community. There's a perception that being a leader is being intimidating, but it's much more about inspiring people to do their best — which means you need to do your best, too. You're the captain of the ship — not micromanaging, but giving everyone the tools to perform their roles.