"We really ought to do something about this..."

 

2011 was a tough year for me, both professionally and personally. I had purchased a gallery in downtown Traverse City two years prior and was struggling to save it while my marriage was deteriorating. As a result, I was pretty self-absorbed and unpleasant to be around. 

One morning, as I was unlocking the front door to open, I woke a couple of men who were sleeping on the patio benches behind the building. At first, I was annoyed and even felt a little violated. But they were nice enough, even apologetic, and quickly gathered their belongings to get out of my way. And so we went through this routine most mornings from late-September to early-November. 

Day after day, while sliding my key into the lock, I would think, “We really ought to do something about this.” 

Finally, as the snow began to fall, an internal switch was flipped. “We is me,” I said to myself. “Get off your butt and do something about it!” 

Mind you, I had spent my professional career in marketing, sales, and arts management. I wasn't a social worker, nor did I have a background with people experiencing homelessness. But I did have a genuine concern for our neighbors, and a sincere desire to be part of a solution. 

The next few months were spent researching the root causes of homelessness including adverse childhood effects and external factors like insufficient mental health and addiction treatment services. I was completely shocked to learn that at any given time, there were nearly 100 people living on the streets of Traverse City. Our community was actually losing housing vouchers because people couldn't find affordable housing on which to use them. 

Safe Harbor was in the news around this time and I reached out, described my skills and asked if there was a place for me. The churches had been struggling with growing numbers of people requiring emergency shelter, and they needed a group to study the problem and hopefully secure a larger, centrally-located permanent facility from which to operate. 

I found a way to contribute and am proud to say that we made it happen -- Safe Harbor opened its new building just in time for the start of the season in late 2017. And looking back, I'm extremely grateful for the opportunity as the past seven years have been some of the most challenging, productive and fulfilling of my life. 

Homelessness is truly a community issue, and I believe it will take each of us to end it. Safe Harbor, along with Goodwill Industries of Northern Michigan and many other organizations within the Northwest Michigan Coalition to End Homelessness, simply could not operate without the generosity of donors and volunteers. They are doing a lot with a little, and I'm encouraged to think what they could do with more.

When we come forward, not only do social issues get addressed, but our local economies expand, businesses grow, education spreads, and support systems become more efficient. More engaged communities make more engaging communities. 

Being involved makes us feel less alone, keeps us healthier and happier, and contributes to a more vital and interesting life. We feel connected, useful, appreciated, and safe. It brings inspiration, helps us succeed in our relationships, and allows us find our way in life. Most importantly, it provides a sense of purpose. 

When you step up, it allows you to sharpen your abilities while making a positive difference. You may even find that you develop more self-confidence, and that you are needed and valued in your community far more than you ever could have imagined.
Ask yourself: “What special skills or talents can I offer?” “What kind of person am I?” “Do I enjoy working on my own projects, or do I work better alongside others?” 

And consider going outside of your comfort zone. As a non-religious person, I found working with Safe Harbor's 24 churches and 1,700 volunteers to be intimidating at first. But my life is much richer for the experience, and I'm so glad I did. 

So volunteer. If you’re a people person, see whether you can do something that involves interaction like working at a community meal, making food deliveries, or working as a cashier at a charity thrift store. Introverts can help, too. You might contribute by providing accounting help or cleaning and maintaining shelter facilities. 

Sit on a board. Write a check. Research. Advocate. Speak up and speak out. Think about writing an opinion piece or a letter to the editor. Make a public comment at a city commission meeting or at your local community center. 
Your involvement may help solve a big problem, or it may just make someone's day a little brighter -- both are critically important. 

I'm happy to report that I did manage to turn my business and marriage around, and I give a lot of the credit to volunteerism and community involvement. It sounds cliché, but the more I give, the more I get. The more connected I feel to those outside, the more secure I feel within. I am a happier, healthier, more fulfilled person, and all of my relationships have benefited because of it. 

So remember, “We is me.” Get off your butt. Your community needs you, and you need your community.

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What is 'small-town character'?

 

As the close vote totals from the last Traverse City election illustrate, there is no clear mandate for future decisions regarding growth. And like many other communities, we continue to wrestle with issues of development and change. 

I have found that where there is economic growth and prosperity, there are always those of us who want to stop or stall progress. Maybe because of nostalgia or even parochial interests, we start to question the public planning documents that we had earlier adopted to control and shape how we use our land. 

Some of us rail against prospective development projects using “small-town character!” as our battle cry — cleverly co-opting an image that the entire community supports in order to further restrict the policies we originally helped to create. Frustrated, we criticize local government and community leaders who have been tasked with implementing these plans. 

Letters to the editor, opinion columns, and social media commentary are used to promote the idea of protecting small-town character without actually defining what it is that needs protection.

So, what exactly do we mean when we say “small-town character?" Spelling it out isn't that easy. But in a very broad sense, I think we believe small-town character is that which prevents us from experiencing “big city” problems.

Understanding this, anti-development preservationists disingenuously warn that Traverse City could eventually become the next Grand Rapids, Detroit, or even Chicago.

Keep in mind, Traverse City currently ranks 133 for population size in Michigan. There are literally 132 other municipalities in our state that are larger than ours. According to the last census estimate, Traverse City has grown only 3.5 percent since 2000.

Like many, I'm increasingly concerned about embracing public policy where preservation is a hammer and every development project is a nail. Today, if you want to win an election (or pass a referendum), it’s smart to run on a platform of “preserving small-town charm” or "protecting the neighborhoods." (Full disclosure: I have created a platform that includes these ideas -- only in a way that is defined here). Savvy politicians know that using the term “slow growth” is really code for no growth. 

In my opinion, successful land use policies have a lot less to do with the form of buildings as they do with how they interact with the public sphere. Adding another 50 subdivisions, detached from one another and congesting our streets, will be far more destructive than building up and filling in our downtown. 

To me, small-town character is less about our density and building heights, and more about our residents and their shared values.
 
The social fabric of Traverse City is woven with community goals, civic participation, and proximity to close friends and family. Other elements that contribute to our unique character include opportunities for entertainment, food and culture, clubs and sports, service organizations, and religious activity.

As residents, we care about our history — not only our historic buildings and landmarks but also the generations that designed and built them. We honor the indigenous people who lived on the land before settlers developed it. 

Whether newcomers or multi-generation natives, our people are what make Traverse City special. We care about our city and each other. 

We care about our jobs and businesses, our cultural and natural resources, and our downtown and surrounding neighborhoods. We value our health care and educational institutions, our airport and transit systems, our library and our YMCA. We delight in our opera house and performing arts centers, our parks and open spaces, our marina and our movie theaters.
 
We also care about our poor and vulnerable. The same city that raised funds to rehab the historic State Theater in the span of a few months donated $1.85 million to build an emergency homeless shelter a few blocks away. Both operate with the help of thousands of volunteers, many of whom are retired and looking for a way to give back to the city that they love. 

As Traverse City residents, we know that change is inevitable. But we also have a sense of control along with the ability to be heard and influence that change. 

Growth doesn’t have to be a bad thing. It is, however, problematic when residents take the approach of an exclusive gated community. A staunch no-growth stance is a dangerous way to confront the pressure that our expanding region is putting on our small city.

I'm not sure we will ever have consensus on the definition of small-town character. And I find it sad that something that should unite us continues to be the subject of divisiveness.
 
Perhaps a better goal is to agree on what it could be: a state of mind. One in which we behave as if we live in a small city where our actions affect the entire community, and where we work cooperatively to achieve a collective vision for growth.

Strong leadership is more important than any single issue

In the lead-up to election day on Tuesday, Nov. 5th, I'd like to share some thoughts about our representative democracy and what makes a good mayor or city commissioner. In reality, most citizens are not very familiar with what our local representatives do on a day-to-day basis. We simply trust our elected officials to study public issues on our behalf and make the best decisions possible. That is what representative government is designed to do. We expect transparency and the right to have our opinions considered, but in the end, we know we've elected representatives to act on behalf of the entire community.

A common sentiment around election time is that representatives don't listen when, in fact, he or she has simply made a decision with which we don't agree. Critics often fail to acknowledge that commissioners are actually doing their job: studying, researching, and listening to all sides (residents, business owners, non-profit leaders, City staff, and even State lawmakers) when making their decisions. It isn't that they aren't listening; they just don't always come to the same conclusion.

Theorist Edmund Burke believed that part of the duty of a representative was not simply to communicate the wishes of the electorate but also to use judgement in the exercise of his or her powers, even if those views are not reflective of those of a majority of voters.

I think a true leader is able to keep their focus on the mission, goals, and objectives of Traverse City, despite a barrage of political pressure and personal attacks.

My advice: If you don't agree with your elected official's position, let him or her know. If your officials consistently vote against your personal wishes, look for preferable candidates next time, or consider public office yourself. But realize that good leaders must act. And they must consider much more information than is typically reported by our local media to make decisions — sometimes unpopular ones — in order to move governance forward.

Lately, individuals and groups I've been involved with have expressed deep concern regarding the tone of local politics and the overall lack of civil discourse in our community. Rather than uncovering the root causes and conditions that are to blame, I'd like to focus on what we all have in common — our shared community values — and the progressive thinkers and change-makers who can lead us moving forward.

On the current city commission, I think there is a lot of agreement about the vision for our city and the things that we all value, but there remains conflict about exactly how to protect and promote these ideals.

The most effective leaders in our community influence others, not on the basis of their position, but because they possess certain traits that enable them to represent their constituencies and drive progressive social and economic change.

According to research, the virtue most often attributed to a good leader pertains to their character and personality, rather than their political philosophy. More important than the opinions you have is what type of human being you are.

A great leader not only has the motivation to affect positive change but also wants to be at the forefront of that transformation. This individual inherently possesses the dedication and drive that are necessary, and is willing to selflessly put in the time and effort toward this service for the community good.

A great leader is able to evolve and grow over the course of time and also has a willingness to adapt and learn. It’s not enough to pay lip service to other people’s thoughts and ideas; one needs to be open-minded enough to listen, learn and change course when a valid new perspective is shared.

Finally, a great leader needs to be a bit of a dreamer, a big picture person who is able to see beyond the minutia of everyday city business (or political squabbling). This forward-thinking ability is especially important when trying to affect lasting change — often a hard and long process in which the ultimate objective might not even be achieved in this generation.

So as you prepare to cast your votes, I encourage you to look to the future. A candidate's opinion on a single issue is far less important than his or her experience, character, and leadership traits. Consider the kind of individuals that you want making decisions for you over the next four years. More importantly, vote for the candidates that have the ability to nurture a Traverse City where your children and grandchildren can thrive.

Social Media Misuse and Incivility is Hurting Democracy

 

We've all experienced it. An unkind remark while scrolling through the online comment section; then another, even more provocative. Finally, the attacks get personal as trolls disrupt the conversation, making unfounded claims and spinning conspiracy theories in an attempt to challenge others' opinions. In this new frontier of digital media, many acknowledge that civil discourse has become the exception, rather than the rule.

In fact, there’s so much incivility, animosity, and disrespect on social media that 65 percent of American users express disgust and frustration with online discussions. (I suspect the other 35 percent are the ones doing the trolling.) It's not just affecting individual social media users — it’s also hurting our democracy.

Two-thirds of U.S. adults consume at least some of their news on social media. And sadly, most of us are just reading headlines.

A 2016 study by computer scientists at Columbia University and the French National Institute found that 70 percent of Facebook users comment without reading an article, and 59 percent of links shared on social media have never actually been clicked. In other words, most people comment and spread news without ever reading it.

“This is typical of modern information consumption. People form an opinion based on a summary, or a summary of summaries, without making the effort to go deeper,” study co-author Arnaud Legout said in a recent interview with the Washington Post.

Worse yet, the study finds that these sort of unvetted peer-to-peer shares are key in determining what kind of news gets circulated and what disappears from public view. So our thoughtless retweets, and those of our friends, are actually determining our shared political priorities.

The problem isn't with social media itself, but with how it's currently being utilized. Anyone can read a headline, write a quick uninformed comment, and hit “return” on a keyboard. And while everyone has a right to his or her opinions, I believe those that are well reasoned, with a basis in fact, should carry more weight — especially when policy-making is involved.

The debate surrounding the Traverse City Arts Commission's plan to paint a temporary mural around the retaining wall at the Open Space is a great example of social media users working in direct conflict with the democratic process.

When plans for the mural hit the news, it exploded on social media. Basic misinformation, mixed with distrust of local appointed officials and fueled by inflammatory comments, created a perfect storm of opposition to the project. In the span of just four days, the Traverse City Open Space Mural Opposition Facebook page gained 450 members. And, as the chair of the Traverse City Arts Commission, I participated in no less than 15 different online discussion threads in an attempt to dispel myths and to defend the legitimate decision-making process.

Everything — from the cost and location of the mural, to the design, length of installation and the publicity used during the process — was being misrepresented by social media users. The $2,500 cost was inflated to $25,000. The unobtrusive retaining wall turned into a major impediment to lake views. The blues and yellows used in the design morphed into “neon” colors. The plan for a two-year rotating exhibit space became permanent. And nearly everyone refused to believe that this plan included multiple opportunities for public input. The accepted narrative was that we conspired behind closed doors to force this mural “down the throats” of area residents.

Long story short, the artists caved under the public pressure and pulled out of the project. They didn't want to come where they weren't welcome and felt threatened by the nasty emails, phone calls, and even negative reviews being left by trolls on their business' social media pages.

As a result, this virtual “angry mob” wiped out six months of careful planning by officials on three different City boards. We have little way of knowing how many of them were actually City residents or taxpayers, but we do know that none of them participated in the public process prior to approval. 

Even more depressing, just a handful of opponents bothered to show up at the well-publicized Arts Commission meeting immediately following the controversy. This is where next steps for the mural project were being considered and where public input was crucial. Many rejected the original project, but very few made their opinions known for future planning. At this rate, we are doomed to repeat the cycle of dysfunction.

Whether or not we agree with the actions of our government officials, it is our responsibility as citizens to engage during the process. Protesting a plan after it's been approved not only wastes the City's time and resources, it runs contrary to a very important principle of democracy — political participation.
 
Citizens have an obligation to become informed about public issues, to monitor the conduct of their leaders and representatives, and to express their own opinions. Most importantly, political participation in a democracy must be peaceful, respectful of the law, and tolerant of the different views of other groups and individuals.

So please, get involved. If you can't attend public meetings, read the agendas and minutes online. If you have a concern, send an email — or better yet, meet your representative for coffee. Real people with real issues are far more persuasive than anonymous online commenters. And elected and appointed officials are very receptive when comments are constructive — and when criticism is expressed in a respectful way.

Why would anyone run for public office?

In the weeks heading up to the 2015 election, I was having lunch with mayoral candidate Jeanine Easterday when an acquaintance approached our table. “One more week until the election,” she said. And without indicating whether or not she supported the candidate, she added, “I think you're really brave.”

Ms. Easterday conceded, “It does take some courage.”

Running for office has never been for the faint of heart, and that's why it's rare for anyone to actually choose public service. A recently-released Pew Research study puts the total number of Americans who have run for office at a measly 2%.

Long hours, low compensation and intense scrutiny -- my question has always been: “Why would anyone run for public office?” It seems to be one of the most thankless, demanding, and soul-crushing things you can do.

Our Traverse City commissioners review an average of 700 pages of briefing materials per month. They attend lengthy weekly meetings and serve on ad hoc committees and other City boards. In addition, they spend time doing independent research, meeting with concerned citizens and replying to media inquiries.

Former commissioner Gary Howe shared with me that he spent an average of 12 hours a week on City-related business -- sometimes as high as 30. Because of the sheer time commitment, city commissioners have traditionally been retired, self- or part-time employed.

Everything -- literally, everything -- you do will be scrutinized. If you step out of line, lose your temper in an email, or get tired and make a mistake, the chances of everybody learning about it are pretty good.

All this for a whopping $5,418 per year; or something like $8.00 per hour.

While I was impressed with the level of civility that our Traverse City candidates displayed during the last campaign season, I was disappointed by the local online trolls -- hiding behind their computer screens and demonstrating a disturbing lack of compassion, or even basic civility.

Commenters on social and on-line media continue to reinforce the perception that public office is not something that is important or noble. The overall opinion is that politicians are at a minimum dysfunctional, but most likely power hungry and pushing their personal agendas.

This can have a negative long-term effect because if we believe that all politicians are idiots or shysters and we treat everybody who runs for office like an idiot or shyster, eventually, only idiots and shysters will choose to run for office.

In Running from Office, a book based on their research, Jennifer Lawless and Richard Fox argue that the past two decades on the national front have seen increased partisanship, prolonged stalemates, and numerous scandals that have turned the next generation off politics altogether. They say that unless behaviors change, the country’s brightest stars are going to pursue just about anything but one of the 500,000 elected offices America needs to fill each year.

The Harvard Institute of Politics surveys young Americans about their attitudes on an annual basis and in their most recent survey, only 21% of respondents considered themselves politically engaged. Last year, only a third counted running for office “an honorable thing to do.” 

Millennials aren't just turned off by those who serve, but voter apathy is also very high. In the last Traverse City election, only 713 residents between the ages of 18 and 40 voted. Yes, you read that right – of registered voters under 40, only 14% turned-out. This is compared to an overall turn-out of 34%.

To fix this, it’s going to take each and every one of us stepping back, putting an end to the vitriol, and putting ourselves in the shoes of the people we see on the news or read about on-line. It’s going to take us being willing to admit that candidates for office are just regular people like the rest of us, doing something that 98% of us refuse to do. Instead of making that process harder, we should give these folks the respect they deserve.

Our system of government only works when the public is engaged, good people step up and serve, and the voters are given a choice among qualified people who all care, but simply have different philosophies or policy plans.

"All politics is local," said the late Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill. Let's start by creating an environment where honorable folks enter politics at the local level, then hopefully move up through the state to national office.

Voters shouldn't be forced to choose the lesser of evils. And candidates shouldn't have to be “really brave.”

© 2019 by  The Committee to Elect Christie Minervini

christie@abettertc.com

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