Monday, May 23, 2011

Small town people running small towns—with help from the LGC

Small town people running small towns—with help from the LGC

The highway from Harlem to Billings at four o’clock in the morning is an empty stretch of road. Mayor Bill drove the Yukon . Council Member Sondra rode shotgun. The mayor and I were headed to the annual Municipal Elected Officials Workshop. Bill’s handsome young grandson Brandon, resplendent in Navy whites, slept upright in the back seat. Bill and I talked quietly. We noted the greening beauty of the countryside, the play of shadow as the sun rose, the abundance of wildlife.

We arrived at the Billings airport, our first stop, too early for Brandon to check in for his flight to Norfolk , so we went upstairs to the restaurant. After a leisurely though hearty breakfast, we lingered over coffee. Once we had seen the young man safely on his way, Bill and I drove to the Heights for a short visit with my sister, a visit I thoroughly enjoyed, more so since I had not seen her for a couple of years. Judy, who owns her own shop, cut my hair. We caught up on family gossip and hugs.

The workshop we were attending was provided by the Local Government Center , an educational outreach extension of Montana State University . In conjunction with the Montana Municipal Interlocal Authority and the Clerks Institute, it offers trainings, technical assistance and research for elected officials of Montana cities and towns. There were sessions for mayors and council members, city attorneys and clerks from all over the state. Once we checked into our rooms we immersed ourselves in trainings from Wednesday through Friday. City clerks and treasurers had arrived early for a full week of day and night sessions. Sometimes we met jointly; other workshops were specific to each group.

Lectures, simulated incidents, table-top exercises, group discussions, Q&A sessions—all were valuable. Emergency management, jurisdictions, the declaration process, how to request assistance—all good stuff! Issues that require public participation and deliberation, tips on researching an issue, and ways to advocate to decision makers so that public policy may be developed or changed—this was exciting! Wetlands, flood mitigation, maximizing benefits of wetlands, improving water quality—how timely. Managing conflict constructively—gathering tools and skills to effectively manage potentially contentious interpersonal and community conversations—all provocative topics.

The whole workshop experience definitely increased my ability to be effective in my role as a council person. But the best part, to me, was interacting with other elected officials from around Montana . Some were friends from previous workshops; others I met for the first time. We shared our stories. We asked multitudes of questions, to one another and to the workshop leaders. We indulged in stimulating dialogue as each workshop topic brought new challenges.

We found that most of us know the same frustrations and rewards of living in small communities. When we don’t take the opportunity to share our experiences, strengths, hopes, failures and frustrations with one another, we often get to feeling like we are pushing a heavy boulder uphill by ourselves. At least that is how I felt when I arrived at the workshop.

This was beautifully summed up by a workshop leader, “Most small towns are run by STP.” “What does that acronym stand for?” we asked. “Same Ten People”. The room exploded with laughter. And I felt at home. I learned that I am not alone.

Our jobs would be extremely difficult without the help of the Local Government Center and the trainings and workshops they hold throughout the state. Being a municipal official is a lot like getting married or like parenting. We sign up for it without a clue, without a training manual, without a step-by-step book of instructions. LGC fills the gap.

LGC means a lot to me and to my home town. Any one of us in city government can pick up the phone and dial for help. LGC personnel are always ready to answer questions, give us information, help with research, steer us in the right direction, and keep us out of jail. The Legislature, in their dubious wisdom, failed to fund the LGC this session. Instead they gave a no-strings chunk of money to the University system and suggested LGC request funding from them. I hope the University Regents listen.

Sondra Ashton

HDN: Looking out my back door

May 19, 2011

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