A group of seventh-grade students from Memorial Middle School got to see firsthand Tuesday what it is like to run a town as big as Howell.
After spending the day with township officials and officers, a group of students got the chance to sit on the council dais as the township attorney, the chief financial officer, as well as the mayor and council . The event, known as Student Government Day, is a tradition that stretches back more than a decade.
In addition to the more mundane items like leading those assembled in the meeting room in the pledge of allegiance, the students also got the chance to see what governing is really like.
This included introducing and voting on five ordinances, hearing comments from the public, and delivering reports on what they had learned over the course of the day.
Katie Carbone, who had the winning essay in a contest to see who would be selected as mayor, also got to read her essay into the official public record.
Some of the ordinances proposed included the establishment of an official policy for the school district when it comes to observing the anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks, healthier lunches in schools and the restoration of some previously cut programs.
The ordinance for the 9/11 protocol was introduced by Joe Fifield, who admirably filled the shoes of Deputy Mayor William Gotto and said he enjoyed the whole project. "It was an interesting, unique experience and I wouldn't take it back," he said.
Fifield said he learned a lot from his time on the council, and said it could be just the beginning of his service to the community. "I learned that debating topics can be very fun. It was great to be up there and act like a professional." He enjoyed himself so much in fact, that he might one day consider running for council, or another form of government in the future. "I learned that this could be an interesting career choice for me in the future," he said.
In addition to the ordinance, Fifield also asked that the issue of cafeteria workers wearing hair nets be looked into. That was when Julia Earley, filling in for township Attorney McKenna Kingdon, stepped in to answer his question. Earley provided actual case studies and laws that defined when the food safety items were needed.
Earley said she enjoyed the process of bringing the ordinances together to present to the public at the end of a unique day. "We all decided on the resolutions together and we all got to debate back and forth on which ones we thought would be best to present." And while Kingdon provided her the facts to use at the meeting, the temporary attorney said she was glad to be part of the explanation. "I learned a lot about how Howell works and how they decide what they want to become laws and what they want to pass," she said.
Other ordinances proposed including reinstating study hall to the daily schedule for students as well as bringing back previously cut electives like cooking, photography, foreign languages and woodshop.
Hannah Burke, who sat in the seat normally occupied by Councilwoman Susan Schroeder Clark, introduced an ordinance supporting healthier lunches in school and also cast one of two votes against a proposed ordinance for a referendum on a new Recreation Center for the township.
Seeing democracy in action was a definite learning experience for Burke even if it was for only a short time."Today I learned that running a town is not as easy as you would immediately think it is," she said. "You can have a great idea and you can throw it out there and not everybody's going to agree with you."
As for why she voted against a referendum for the facility which would have brought new basketball courts, a gym, an indoor track and a pool to town, Burke said, "I don't find it completely necessary." She added, "The swimming pool, we can go to the swim club. There's a lot of things we can do. We have a field, we can do a lot of things with that and we have the inside. I didn't think it was that important."
In these tough economic times, even the student-run town council had to turn to its chief financial officer, in this case Kelly Fallon, for some guidance on how the town's coffers could be used. Fallon said dealing with as much money as CFO Jeff Filiatreault does was something definitely out of the norm for her. "I learned that they have a lot to deal with and a lot of money and sometimes they have to say no to different projects because they just can't do everything," she said. "People may think they're mean but they're really not. They're just trying to look out for the town.
Before Councilwoman Pauline Smith took her customary spot at the dais Tuesday night, Natalie Douchette filled in for her and was responsible for introducing the ordinance calling for the restoration of the electives. She said it was her own experiences that made the ordinance a personal matter. "They cut cooking last year and I really liked cooking and so did everyone else," she said.
Like her fellow council members, Douchette said she enjoyed the democratic process as a whole. "It was really fun debating and making topics for the resolutions," she said. Even when suggestions were made, she said that did not always mean they were brought forward at the meeting. "It was sometimes hard because we wouldn't always agree."
For the student government meeting, Victoria Clark sat in the seat normally held by Councilman Robert Nicastro and said she was surprised by just how much work the council members have to do. "I learned that running a town as big as Howell isn't easy," she said. "There's a lot of people which means there could be a lot of problems."
Fortunately for Carbone, none of the issues were particularly controversial, which helped her lead a meeting that wrapped up nicely in just half an hour. The mayor of the day called the experience, "empowering," and said she greatly enjoyed filling in for regular Mayor Robert Walsh. She also said she was surprised when she found out that her essay on what democracy means to her was chosen as the winner, making for an even more unique day. Fortunately for Mayor Walsh, Carbone said she has no plans at this time to seek public office but enjoyed the day none the less.
From the township's side, one of the people most involved in the project is its clerk, Bruce Davis. Having held meetings similar to this for more than a decade, Davis said he enjoys it every time. "It's an extremely valuable learning experience for them and something that they will remember for years to come," he said.
Even long after they finish their time as student members of the council, Davis said he still gets letters from the former students remembering how much they enjoyed the day. "It's exciting especially when I see that even after one short day, not even a full day, maybe three or four hours, that they produce what they produced tonight," he said. "We talk about the subject matter with them over the course of the day and they really get into it because they talk about what's important to them."
Going from his regular duties to his work on Tuesday, Davis said it was fun to see the students go through the whole process, including debates on what they wanted to talk about. "This group, once they found their rhythm, they just ran with it."