Wanted: More Business Voices in Local Governance

This month Traverse City’s elected officials will conduct interviews to fill a vacancy on the city commission. Our region is fortunate to have so many individuals willing to step up and serve their community by taking on the duties of elected and appointed officials.

But from the perspective of the Chamber, the ranks of our local officials have a notable deficiency: a dearth of representation from the business ranks. It’s fine to have some civic leaders who are motivated by or focused on specific issues that drive their desire to serve – protecting neighborhoods, cutting (or raising) taxes, reducing traffic or countless other issues that spur people to get active in local governance.

There’s a downside, however, in having too many decision makers cut from the same cloth.

Those volunteering to serve the public can set priorities, of course, but they don’t get to pick and choose their obligations. There’s basic work that must be done: setting tax and fee rates, hiring administration, setting policy, budgeting and dealing with infrastructure among other duties. These are often mundane issues that, while vitally important to an operation’s long-term success, don’t stoke much public emotion or drive voters to the polls.

However, these are issues business people deal with every day. They understand that business success comes from having knowledge and skills covering a wide variety of subjects – not just topics they find interesting or get charged up about. Business people also bring another critical asset to the public sector – they have first-hand experience in dealing with the decisions and rules made by local governments and the impact they have on business in their communities.

Whether it’s tax rates, zoning rules, building codes, parking regulations, utility rates and connection fees, “living wage” or other ordinances, business people have dealt with how the rules impact their ability to serve their customers and drive the local economy. These are women and men that have the know-how to balance their books, meet a payroll, deal with personnel decisions, make short- and long-term operational decisions.  This is all part of a background and skill set that would assist any elected or appointed official or committee member.

For example, it’s no coincidence that the growth and economic strength of downtown Traverse City continues not just because of the tremendous investment of the business sector, but also because of the sound policy decisions and long-term vision of the business-laden Downtown Development Authority board.

In the history of our great city, some of our most effective civic leaders have also been some of our most successful business people – starting with Traverse City’s highly accomplished entrepreneur Perry Hannah. Here at the Chamber, we’re fortunate that some of those same civic and business leaders played and continue to take on a significant role in operating our organization over its 103-year history. They understood that a community is best served when its business people take an active, engaged role in public affairs.

Government shouldn’t be run like a business; there are important reasons that it not be. But communities suffer when sharp business people aren’t able to offer their real-life experience and expertise to the public sector. It’s as relevant today as when President Calvin Coolidge delivered his famous phrase 90-plus years ago, “ … the chief business of the American people is business … ” It’s time to bring back more business insight into how things are done in our region. It is our strong hope and desire that business people of all types will grasp hold of the opportunities and privilege to serve in public positions as they become available, now and in the future.

Doug Luciani is CEO of TraverseCONNECT and the Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce. Contact him at doug@TraverseCONNECT.org.