By Mary Jane Smetanka
When Joshua Gran was mayor of Caledonia, he’d prepare for a City Council meeting by spreading his papers out on the kitchen table of his parents’ home. Later he’d sleep in the same bedroom he used as a boy.
Gran, who just finished a two-year term as mayor of his hometown, is 23 years old. He was working a full-time job and living with his parents even as he served as one of Minnesota’s youngest mayors.
“Sooner or later I’ll move out of the house, but I was working to pay off my student loans,” says Gran, who was still in college when he took office in 2015.
The millennial challenge
Gran is a rarity in Minnesota: a millennial who has served as a city official. Millennials, generally defined as people who were born between 1980 and 1995, are something of a hot property in Minnesota cities. As officials grow older and vacancies pop up on councils and commissions, getting younger people involved is a solution.
But how to attract people who have been stereotyped as entitled, self-absorbed, impatient, and unreliable? Hannah Ubl—herself a millennial and head of research at BridgeWorks, a Minneapolis consulting company that works to bridge gaps between generations—says cities need to play to millennials’ idealism, desire for change, and need to make a difference.
“When they look at government, it’s like a lot of other industries that are bureaucratic and hierarchical and incredibly formal,” says Ubl. “There’s not a lot of excitement there. People wonder, can I trust them? Would I want to be part of that group? They’re looking for authenticity, transparency, honesty and does [the organization] live by the values it promises.”
Many millennials are working long hours to pay off student loans and are marrying and starting families later than previous generations, she says. They save their free time for family and friends.
Craig Waldron agrees. City administrator of Oakdale for 20 years, he is co-director of Hamline University’s Center for Public Administration and Leadership. Today, he says, “people’s lives are really busy and it takes a two-income family to make ends meet; it was easier in the past without the student loans. Who has time to sit through a three-hour commission meeting?”
Millennials find the lack of civility in public life unappealing, Waldron says. He also faults high schools for waning civics instruction. Many of his Hamline students simply don’t know how important local government is, he says.
“Millennials want to affect the future, but public service is not on their radar screen,” he says. “Once you get it up there, they are interested. Local government works fairly fast. If someone calls up with a pothole problem, you can get that fixed in a few hours. If somebody has a fire, people deal with it. Serving as a mayor or city councilmember, you’re making a difference every day.”
Millennials in Minnesota cities
In Grand Marais (population 1,360), Jay Arrowsmith DeCoux, now 34, served on the Library Board before being elected mayor in 2014. He won a second term in November. It makes for a busy life. He’s been a Boundary Waters tour guide, works in a bike shop that he’s buying, and runs a bed and breakfast with his wife. They have a six-year-old son. He ran for mayor after longtime city councilmembers decided not to run again.
“Nobody had filed for mayor,” Arrowsmith DeCoux says. “I wanted Grand Marais to be seen as a really vibrant place and forward thinking.”
Since his election, he’s worked on updating the city’s complex zoning code, which he feels deters business investment, redoing the city’s comprehensive plan with more public involvement, and adding affordable housing that would attract younger families to the city.
“One of the huge pros of having younger city councilmembers is that we ask a lot of questions,” he says. “When you ask a lot of questions, you get a lot of answers.”
Bringing new perspectives
Arrowsmith DeCoux, Gran, and Tyrel Clark, who was elected mayor of Eyota at age 30 in 2012 and won a third term in November, agree that it’s awkward to join city councils with members who are old enough to be their parents or grandparents. You may come in wanting to make a lot of changes, but you have to strike a balance between learning and introducing new ideas.
Before becoming mayor, Clark, a Mayo Clinic IT application analyst with a wife and four kids, joined the Eyota Park Board at age 25. He pushed for a trail system in the city of 2,000, saying that it would be safer than the informal paths around town. But it was a battle, he says. “The generational clash of priorities and ideals still happens,” Clark says. “[my] generation likes to be outdoors, to be on bikes, to move. But for some, anything beyond roads can seem like a waste. There was pushback because we would have to snowplow it.”
But Clark worked hard to convince veteran members of the project’s worth, and Eyota won about $600,000 in state funding and grants to build what is now a popular bike trail and sidewalks.
During Clark’s time as mayor, Eyota has started a summer movie-in-the-park program to build community. The city also is working with a program of the American Institute of Architects Minnesota to take a new look at its downtown.
For Gran, who is a financial analyst for a food distributor, understanding things like Caledonia’s budget came easy, but he says he had a lot to learn about other city functions. He wasn’t afraid to ask questions, and says his much older Council colleagues were helpful.
His questioning of some expenses ended up in stories in the local newspaper, and Gran says he heard from citizens who appreciated his queries into issues that hadn’t been discussed much before in Caledonia (population 2,800). But Gran, who wanted to reduce the role of government in people’s lives, found his views an outlier on the Council.
“I learned that you can come in gung-ho and wanting to do a lot of things, but you’re not a dictator and you can’t always win,” he says. “I was on the losing end of a lot of 4-1 votes. That gets old.” That was one factor in his decision not to run for re-election, but he’s grateful for the time he spent on the Council. “I’m glad I did it,” Gran says. “I’m really proud of where I’m from and wanted to steer the community in the way I see best.”
Reaching out to millennials
For the three millennial mayors, balancing life and city duties has been demanding. Gran says that while his bosses at work allowed him to leave to take care of city business, his attempts to involve other young people in city government failed because they worried about taking time from their jobs. Politics also dissuades some.
“Lots of young people don’t want people pulling them aside in restaurants to voice their concerns,” Gran says. He thinks adding millennials to less political posts—such as those on library, park, and plan¬ning and zoning boards—might provide an easier introduction to public service.
Arrowsmith DeCoux says millennials want to be involved, but need help entering what can seem like an intimidating world. He thinks mentorships would help.
“Our hearts are in the right place; we have good ideas, and we know how innovation works,” he says.
To help recruit people, he suggests elected city officials go to a coffee shop, bar, or other millennial hangout to “let them know they’re valued and that they could make change and have an impact.”
It’s also important for experienced officials to realize that younger people can bring a lot to the table, Arrowsmith DCoux say. When he attended some networking meetings as a new mayor, people sometimes reacted more to his youth than his office, he says, and he was “treated like a novelty.”
Later when he gave a presentation at a League of Minnesota Cities meeting, the reception was warm and people were interested in what he had to say. “It felt like people are starting to get used to seeing younger faces in this position,” he says.
In Eyota, Clark has helped recruit younger people for the Park Board and Planning Commission. “It’s hard to get people on boards, period,” he says.
At his urging, Eyota now offers a $25 stipend for Park Board and Planning Commission meetings, a small gesture to cover day care costs and to encourage young people with kids to participate. Cities need to be flexible, Clark says. If a board meets on Wednesday nights, but that’s when the city softball league plays, change the meeting day.
“You have to engage these people,” Clark says. “Get them involved, say you appreciate the input, and if you have an opening on a board, they should try for it. Bait the fishing hook and reel them in.”
Mary Jane Smetanka is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer.
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