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Line Perspective

A Leader in Local Government

Rob Baker refuses to sit back and let opportunities pass students by. Instead, the professor of political science jumps right in with research and calls to colleagues in a quest to give students a one-of-a-kind, hands-on learning experience. As a result of his efforts, Wittenberg now boasts the only undergraduate internationally backed Local Government Management Internship (LGMI) program in the country.

"I wanted to design a program that would be a true professiona l management experience, where students would be work ing on substantial projects that would directly impact a community," Baker said.

He succeeded.

Now sponsored by the International City/County Management Association (ICM A), a prestigious worldwide organization dedicated to the professional management of local government, Baker's program integrates classroom theory with hands-on opportunities, which ensure that participants gain valuable experience in all facets of the field.

"A problem in ma ny internship situations is that students are plunked down in an organization without much guidance, and without much to do, so they feel irrelevant and unnecessary," Baker said. "This program allows them to make a difference in the community."

As part of the program, local governments from around the country submit proposals outlining their communities' needs in the hopes of securing student interns for nine weeks each summer at a cost of about $5,000. Baker and his program colleague, Jeff Ankrom, professor of economics, then sift through the proposals sent to them by ICMA to determine which community to select.

"With Jeff's expertise in public finance, the program became even more enriched when he came on board," Baker said. Together, Baker and Ankrom examine the type of projects needed in the community, the housing options for students and the day-to-day involvement of students in the town's operations.

of students in the town's operations. "Part of the goal of the program is to achieve a mutually beneficial experience for the students and the community," Baker said.

To assist both parties with that goal, "the local govenment is responsible for hosting a full-day orientation program for the students on the first Monday of the program during which the manager/ ad mi n ist rator, mayor, i ntere sted members of the council and department heads meet with the students, provide information and answer questions," Baker said. A tour of the community is also included in the orientation.

Students are then expected to work Monday through Thursday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Fridays from 8 a.m. to 12 p.m. as unpaid interns. They also take the professor-taught class, Introduction to Local Government Administration, twice a week in the evenings during their time at the selected location, and attend commission meetings and other staff meetings as required by their supervising department heads.

In 2005, the first year Wittenberg worked with ICMA, which previously only supported graduate-level programs, Meredith, N.H., won the bid. As a result, 11 Wittenberg students from diverse backgrounds headed east to work alongside leaders in the community of nearly 6,400 residents next to Lake Winnipesauke. This year, nine students, including one from the University of Oregon, will travel to the city of Chippewa Falls and Eau Clair County, Wisc., to work with Dan Elsass '73, city administrator, and Tom McCarty, county administrator.

"I a m e x t remely e xcited about welcoming the young people from my alma mater because I believe they will bring a spark of enthusiasm and fresh eyes to our city operations and, hopefully, share their observations with our professional managers, the council and the mayor," Elsass said.

"As a graduate of Wittenberg and its political science department, I also see this as a great opportunity to pass on an introduction to my chosen profession to the next generation of potential local government managers," Elsass added.

"It will be nice to attempt to pay back some of what I was given while there and when I was an intern in public administration after Wittenberg."

Once on site, students will not only observe local government officials at work, but they will work closely with the professionals themselves as they solve problems, analyze community needs and create budgets, among other activities. Each intern will then be given at least one project to complete by the end of the program, and each will receive eight hours of college credit for successfully fulfilling the program's requirements.

"What impressed me the most was how readily the students became involved in the community," said Carol Granfield, Meredith town manager.

"The students literally came in each day in their Wittenberg vans and disbursed themselves within the community to work on their projects."

The 11 interns at the Meredith site completed more than 15 projects, including a citizen survey, the results of which have since become the basis for determining some of Meredith's town goals. In addition, the interns participated in the New Hampshire Managers Conference as well as the state Local Government Center.

"It was such a positive experience as they were all eager to learn and become involved with the community and government," Granfield said.

"These very talented interns also assisted Meredith with some ver y significant work as none of the projects were 'make work,'" she added.

"We have a limited staff, and the talents of the students allowed us to give them a project with direction and receive some high quality reports and studies, which have been very beneficial. I have recommended this program to other communities and would enjoy doing it again."

"The students essentially became part of the management staff," Baker explained, "and a professor is present in the workplace to help troubleshoot and guide the independent work required of the students."

A former city manager himself, Baker remembers well the challenges he faced in the position. At age 24 and still in graduate school, Baker oversaw the budget, public works and utilities departments, as well as development and economic initiatives for the roughly 2,000 residents in the full-service city of Slater located in central Missouri. The experience quickly opened his eyes to the interconnectedness of city operations as well as the career opportunities available.

"Experience has demonstrated to me that undergraduate students in particular have rarely thought much about city government, and consequently have an extremely simplified, or inaccurate, understanding of it," Baker said.

This apparent lack of interest, especially on the part of young people, has also created some signif icant challenges for cites across the nation. According to a recent article in The New York Times, "Fractious politics and disdain for government, the limits of smalltown life and aging of baby boomers traditionally drawn to civic careers are making jobs harder to fill, even as communities increasingly turn to such professional administrators to oversee budgets, services and personnel.

"The shrinking pool of recruits is a forerunner of what some experts call a broader government talent shortage to come," the article continued.

Although Baker's program is not specifically designed to train future city managers, the program has inspired some former students to seek out local government careers.

Shannon Kroeger-Meadows '99, Stacia Rastauskas '98 and Robyn Gramlich Stewart '94 all participated in one of Baker's earlier, less formalized city management internship programs prior to receiving ICMA endorsement. Back then, Baker used his connections from his days in local government to take students to various communities, including Grand Island, Neb., in 1994 and 2000, and Fernandina Beach, Fla., in 1997.

"There is no question that the internship in Florida had a huge impact on my desire to pursue this line of work," Kroeger- Meadows said. "In Fernandina Beach, I witnessed firsthand the paradoxes that shape local government and the communities in which we live."

Rastauskas, who now serves as assistant vice president, federal relations, at The Ohio State University, also finds the diversity of work rewarding and the internship experience she had invaluable.

"Although my career has been focused at the federal level of government, I have been challenged with responsibility for several issues in which a federal regulation had a significant impact on a local government or organization," she said.

"Whether I was working with the city manager of Springfield, Ohio, on brownfields development or with a local housing coalition interested in property near The Ohio State University campus, I have relied on my knowledge gained through the Fernandina Beach local government internship to navigate these complicated matters."

Despite the high praise for the program, Baker finds the rewards in the changed perspectives students have as a result of their participation.

"One of the most satisfying insights that nearly all the students gain from this program is a much more nuanced perspective of the nature and intensity of local politics," Baker said. "Na´ve and benign perspectives give way to more sophisticated understandings of political reality."

They also give way to a life fulfilled and a passion realized for some participants.

"If you have passion and commitment, you can stand up for a community, do what is right, and know that the consequences will be the best in that situation," said K roeger-Meadows, recalling what Baker told her following a challenging situation during her intern days.

"There hasn't been a day that I've regretted my decision to enter this field."


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