Local, county, and state boards and commissions have a lot of potential to impact your community. And many of those boards are selected, not elected.
KALAMAZOO, Mich.—Running for office can be demanding, daunting, and expensive, even at state and local levels. While elected officials largely say the work is rewarding, the road to public office is not for everyone. But for Michiganders who seek a role in their community and a way to shape the future for their friends and neighbors, getting elected isn’t the only option.
City planning commissions offer a direct and tangible way to impact your community, explained Lenawee County activist William Garcia in an earlier installment of the Keep Going Michigan series. He encouraged progressives active after the 2020 election to seek out those and other local boards, saying their potential to bring good to a community often goes underutilized.
“In Michigan, both the US Senate and State Legislature severely impede the implementation of leftist and progressive ideas at any level other than local,” Garcia told The ‘Gander. “If there are vacant positions on your municipal planning or development commission, get leftists in those positions.”
While school boards appear on the ballot, most local and regional commissions are selected rather than elected. And there are a lot of ways to get involved with those commissions. The City of Kalamazoo, for instance, has nearly 30 different boards and commissions that all perform a role in advising the elected City Commission on specific topics ranging from civil rights to zoning.
The Kalamazoo Historic Preservation Commission advises the city on the areas of historical significance in Kalamazoo, how to handle them, and what areas within the city should apply for the national and state Registers of Historic Places. Meanwhile, the city’s Community Development Act Advisory Committee allocates grant money to programs designed to make housing affordable and promote the economic welfare of the economically disadvantaged members of the community. And the Public Safety Review and Appeal Board exists to provide citizen oversight of the local police, the Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety, and request the city manager investigate conduct of particular officers even when no complaint has been formally brought.
There are dozens more boards in Kalamazoo, including a Tree Committee and a committee overseeing Kalamazoo’s public transit. Kalamazoo residents can apply to serve on these boards online.
One of the most potent local boards is a city Planning Commission, which is required and defined by state law. These boards design the broad-strokes long-term plans for a city, as well as recommend changes to city ordinances and approve certain permits. And Kalamazoo is far from the only Michigan city with a planning board; every city in Michigan has one.
Different boards have different meeting schedules as each role dictates. Planning commissions meet monthly in Kalamazoo, while some review boards meet only annually. And boards don’t just exist on the city level. Counties have boards akin to those of cities as well.
Over the summer Michigan settled on the members of its new redistricting commission, an unelected selection of random citizens who will make one of the most consequential decisions of the next decade, designing the voting districts of Michiganders.
That citizen-led board was a dream of outgoing state Rep. Jon Hoadley (D-Kalamazoo), but ultimately was passed into law by a public referendum in 2018. To Hoadley, though, the biggest victory is the hope this new redistricting commission represents that major changes to systemic problems are, in fact, possible.
“What are the other big issues that we can tackle?” Hoadley asked. “Racial justice, criminal justice reform, and equity? Those are big systems to fix, but this shows me there’s a path.”
Another immensely powerful state board is the Board of Canvassers, four appointed people of both major political parties that typically decide on ballot language for referendums bound for a vote of the people. In 2020, though, state and county Boards of Canvassers had a rather uniquely political role in the normally ceremonial certification process.
After a heated debate over the role of the state’s board, Republican Vice-Chair Aaron Van Langevelde sided with the two Democrats, and expressed clearly his role in ensuring the will of the people was heard.
“We can agree to disagree, but I think the law is on my side here. Our duty is very simple, and it’s a duty,” he said at the December meeting. “This board must respect the authority entrusted to it.”
And that path is walked by everyday Michiganders, serving on boards from the redistricting commission on down to the Kalamazoo Environmental Concerns Committee.