Cecilia Muñoz, director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, and a panel of experts from Rust Belt cities in the U.S. drew more than 100 attendees to explore the crucial relationships between municipal, state and national governments for the implementation of the Obama administration’s “place-based” approach to domestic policy.
Muñoz, a University of Michigan alum, was also the Towsley Foundation Policymaker in Residence at the Public Policy School in 2007.
The panel was comprised of five public servants from the Rust Belt cities of Youngstown, Ohio; Gary, Ind.; and Detroit, each highlighting the role of cooperation on municipal, state and national levels in the “place-based”approach the Obama administration has taken to domestic policy. Rust Belt cities refer to Midwestern and northern American cities characterized by declining industry and falling populations.
Colonel Kevin Riley, the commander’s special assistant for community partnerships in Youngstown and former United States Air Force Commander, and Abigail Beniston, code enforcement and blight remediation superintendent for the city of Youngstown, described the city’s unique cooperative relationship in tackling the problem of abandoned or vacant housing. Looking for ways to cut down on training costs for the Youngstown Air Reserve Station, Riley made use of the Realistic Military Training Program to kill two birds with one stone.
“I have civil engineers who need training on heavy machinery; they (the city) have a need where they have excess houses that need to come down, so we were able to get a memorandum of understanding signed,”he said. “It required the city to go through quite a few legal hoops to get there, including passing some ordinances to allow us to work on their equipment. They would provide all the supervision, all of the equipment, I would provide the labor and my guys get valuable stick time.”
Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson of Gary, Ind., described a similar collaboration in her city when the federal government was able to stretch federal dollars in dealing with urban blight and crime, despite low initial confidence. Using data acquired through cooperation with the Department of Housing and Urban Development and other federal agencies, Freeman-Wilson said she was able to quantify the housing vacancy problem more accurately and spend the limited federal funding in the most useful way.
“Shortly after taking office in January 2012, I got a visit from our regional HUD secretary, and he said, ‘I’m from the federal government and I’m here to help.’ And I’m thinking, ‘OK, I’ll entertain him for maybe 30 or 60 days and send him on his way,’ ” she said. “But I’m humbled to say that it really did transform into a wonderful working relationship.”
Augusta Gudeman, a first-year master’s student in the Ford School of Public Policy and the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, said she came to the panel because she thought the problem of urban blight was highly relevant.
“I think it’s something that we’re going to see around the U.S. probably more often, and it’s just a really interesting case study, so I was interested in what the leaders had to say,”Gudeman said. “I wasn’t familiar with anyone who was on the panel before coming, but learning about the federal and local level partnerships was awesome.”
Describing the city of Gary’s high murder rate, Freeman-Wilson said that the problem was also resolved through collaborating with the federal government. After Freeman-Wilson wrote a letter to then-Attorney General Eric Holder requesting help, Gary became one of the first cities involved in the Department of Justice Office of Justice Programs Diagnostic Center.
“I’m telling you, I have never had an experience as a guinea pig be so positive,” she said. “Our murder rate is half of what it was this time last year, and I’m genuinely afraid to say that publicly because you never know what will happen, but what I can say is that in changing the strategy and getting the collaboration with the federal government, it has caused not just the local government to come to the table, but the county government, the state government and private foundations.”
Freeman-Wilson also said one of the biggest hurdles in cooperation with the federal government is public distrust.
“The complication is the attitude that local residents have,” she said. “When we say that we’re part of the Strong Cities, Strong Communities initiative, they’re looking for the big check. And when I say ‘Oh, no, no, there’s no check,’ they’re looking like someone pulled the wool over my eyes.”
Muñoz agreed, citing public distrust as one of the Obama administration’s chief concerns.
“The thing that the president fears the most is cynicism,” she said. “This notion that things are just broken, and that we can’t make these neighborhoods places of opportunity anymore. He believes that’s wrong, and we have evidence that it’s wrong, and that there is brilliant local leadership and great innovation that people in this country remain capable of. This isn’t so much about the individual programs. It’s very much about the spirit in which the federal government approaches its partnerships with local communities.”
First-year Public Health student Camille Maker said she appreciated the panel’s tone of cooperation.
“I really enjoyed the emphasis on realizing that you can collaborate together, and it’s not something that you would come towards thought for change from one single direction, or from federal to state level, from state level to community, but that you can all impact every single level between them and you can all separately impact thought for change,”she said.