Michigan Municipal League celebrates sense of place in Grand Rapids



by Cynthia Price
Legal News

From Governor Rick Snyder to Michigan Municipal League (MML) Executive Director Dan Gilmartin to at least one out-of-town attorney presenter, MML convention attendees praised Grand Rapids for displaying a strong and sense of place.

This was important because developing “sense of place,” which could be defined simplistically as capitalizing on local assets to create an environment that is distinctive, is a top priority not only for MML but also for the Snyder administration.

Both Gilmartin and Snyder emphasized that the key to the role cities will play in economic “reinvention” hinges on creating that place-based excitement, to attract and retain highly qualified professionals, and to take advantage of what is already positive in Michigan.

On Thursday morning MML released a new publication, The Economics of Place: the Value of Building Communities Around People. Gilmartin, Gov. Snyder, outgoing MML President and Mayor of Alpena Carol Shafto, and William Anderson, who contributed a chapter  on cultural economic development, promoted both the 175-page book and the concept of placemaking.

Everyone who attended the conference was given a free copy of The Economics of Place.

Mayor George Heartwell and Executive Director Susan Heartwell of the Student Advancement Foundation addressed the welcome session on Wednesday at 2 p.m., joined by Rick DeVos, ArtPrize founder.

Though most of those complimenting Grand Rapids referred to ArtPrize, with which the convention was timed to coincide, others noted that the city is clearly thriving in other ways. Gary August, an attorney with Zausmer, Kaufman, August, Caldwell and Tayler in Southfield, commented, “It’s incredible how much is going on here.”

August gave a presentation on construction law as part of the main convention. In that breakout, he cautioned the 25 municipal government participants that the best “strategy for winning construction law cases” was to shape requests for proposals, contracts and other agreements to the advantage of the municipality in advancement of any kind of dispute arising.

The business of governing, especially at the local level, affords tremendous need for legal consideration, so many of the topics over Oct. 5-7 were of a legal nature. Some of these included “Top 10 Open Meetings Act Mistakes and How to Avoid Them,” with Foster Swift attorneys; “Economic Vitality Incentive Program (EVIP),” about the details of the state guidelines, sponsored and moderated by The Hubbard Law Firm, P.C.; a Plunkett Cooney-sponsored session on moral and ethical leadership in public service; and a lengthy session by MML legislative and other staff persons on state and federal legislation.

On Tuesday, however, the day before the convention’s official start, the Michigan Association of Municipal Attorneys (MAMA) held a day-long conference of its own. Though they were primarily aimed at keeping municipal attorneys up to date, sessions in that conference touched on more of the vast number of legal issues facing cities and towns.

A session on “In-sourcing, Out-sourcing, Down-sizing and Elimination of Services” by Troy City Attorney Lori Grigg Bluhm, who is also the newly-elected MAMA vice chair, gave examples of many ways municipalities may get by on less revenue. These included tips on the service sharing and collaboration incentivized by EVIP. Bluhm went through a series of law-related questions that are helpful in designing collaborative programs that will stand legal tests, protect the cities partnering, and make them beneficial and useful.

The author of the MML/Michigan Townships Association white paper on the likely legal issues with the Medical Marihuana Act, Professor Gerald A. Fisher, updated MAMA participants on legal decisions surrounding that act.

Mark Wyckoff of the Planning and Zoning Center at Michigan State University and Brian Connolly from the University of Michigan Law School discussed sign regulation in Michigan. While the topic may sound dry to the average ear, as Connolly noted, such tricky issues as “content-neutrality” and “prior restraint” are the stuff of local government legal considerations. Wyckoff and Connolly have developed a guide on signage.

Wyckoff told the attorneys that, coincidentally, his Planning and Zoning News, a publication most planners read, will be devoted to the status of Medical Marihuana Act cases.
Also on Tuesday, pre-conference sessions were held on “Festivals - Best Practices and Liability Issues” and a for-the-municipalities 3-hour presentation on the Medical Marihuana Act “Two Years Later.”

After Wednesday’s opening, the Thursday morning session presenters spoke on the heart of the matter: how to do placemaking, how to create a sense of place, how to “build communities around people” in an inclusive way, and how to develop a pro-entrepreneurial spirit.

With a dynamic Italian accent and occasionally using colorful language, Ernesto Sirolli, Ph.D., of the Sirolli Institute told the hundreds of city employees and elected officials gathered that they needed to “shut up” and get out of the way in order to encourage the creative types among them to start successful businesses. Sirolli mentioned recently-deceased Steve Jobs of Apple Computer as an example that, rather than teaching entrepreneurs to run businesses, it is better to let them do what they do best and help them surround themselves with people whose best skills are in business planning, accounting, administration and other tasks needed to maintain a prosperous company.

Helen Davis Johnson, of CreateHere, told about her experience in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Johnson said that the need for change was galvanized by TV anchorperson Walter Cronkite announcing, in 1969, that Chattanooga had the worst air quality in the United States. In the late 1990s, culminating with its Vision 2000, Chattanooga became the poster child for community-led planning, ushering in the concept of charrettes where community members from all walks of life participate in conceptualizing and designing public spaces. She said that by 2005,  “complacency had set in.”

So her organization used a similar community-based process to design projects and programs that would address the problems people identified. Young people led the process. She reported that, while work is ongoing, they have seen success, harnessing the energy of the many people who agreed to volunteer.

Following that, Gov. Snyder spoke for over a half hour, starting out by acknowledging that, “Most hands in the room would go up if you were offered an opportunity to get me in a room and talk to me for a half hour and straighten me out.”

He emphasized that his philosophy was to remain positive and encourage a dialogue. His recent exploration of eliminating the personal property tax to decrease the load of businesses had many up in arms, but he denied that he had already taken a stand on the matter.

Snyder answered several questions on the tax, and other subjects, in a relaxed and confident manner.


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