Best Practices - Vol. IV

Mayor Sheila Brillson

Mayor's Night In and Saturday Morning Coffee

"Being accessible" is a buzz word today to which some civic leaders give lip service. Accessibility is a cornerstone of Mayor Sheila Brillson's administration. That cornerstone was put in place 18 months ago when the Mayor opened up the doors of City Hall and invited the citizens to come in.

Since assuming office in January of 1996, "Mayor's Night In" and "Saturday Morning Coffee with the Mayor" have become standard operating procedure in Michigan City. Once a month the citizens are invited to City Hall to meet Mayor Brillson and department heads before a City Council Meeting. The Mayor's offices and conference rooms are set up with complimentary refreshments. On alternate months, the Mayor hosts an open house on Saturday morning to appeal to the "morning people" in her community. The Mayor and her assistants usually come in jeans on Saturdays, and because they are all mothers, sometimes with a child in tow. Michigan City's City Hall has become family friendly.

"The response has been overwhelming," says Mayor Brillson. "Even on our coldest winter mornings, we have hosted a room full of citizens eager to have a personal word with me. City Hall over the years had become a cold and forbidding place. I wanted to open up this building, which belongs to the citizens, and invite people in." Mayor Brillson and her staff have met many lifelong residents of Michigan City at these informal events, people who had never before entered their hometown's City Hall.

In addition to chatting with Mayor Brillson and City personnel, visitors to City Hall can view works of area artists which are exhibited in the Mayor's offices and conference room. "This is a win-win opportunity for the City and the area artists," Mayor Brillson explains. "City Hall is graced with professional and interesting artwork while affording exhibit space for the arts." The art community has responded enthusiastically at the opportunity to promote local art and display their work in City offices. Artistic efforts ranging from watercolors to photography and from computer sketching to quilts and tapestries are featured as a rotating bi-monthly exhibit. A trio of collages featuring photos donated by residents is always a focal point for visitors. The collages commemorate a proud Michigan City moment -- President Bill Clinton's visit to the City in August of 1996 and his reception by 40,000 Midwesterners.

To further keep in touch with her constituents, Mayor Brillson can be reached twice a month on a call-in radio program, "Ask the Mayor." The one-hour, bi-monthly format affords citizens the privacy and autonomy of the phone line to ask questions, comment on a public policy or look for help from the City. Sometimes people call in just to say hello. One of the most enjoyable "Ask the Mayor" radio shows occurred in February when Mayor Brillson invited winners of her "Mayor for the Day" contest to accompany her to the radio show and help field questions. The nine-year-old "Mayor" and her two (runner-up) administrative assistants handled phone calls to the delight of the radio audience. Later that night, the children read their winning essays to the Michigan City Common Council and a packed audience of proud family members and well-- wishers.

Making herself accessible extends not only to citizens but to City employees as well. Mayor Brillson holds department head meetings every two weeks. Department heads are encouraged to bring a staff member to each meeting. Mayor Brillson stresses the "team approach" to City government by bringing everyone up to speed on the pressing issues facing the Mayor's office and then moving around the room for an update from each department on their activities.

"I truly believe in the team concept and I constantly stress that everyone's job is important -- and at any given time, THE most important job in the City. I am the Mayor, the CEO of my City, but at the scene of a three-alarm fire, the firefighters have the most important job. Encouraging each department to report on their activities really makes everyone feel part of a team -- the whole -- and the whole is only as good as the sum of its parts." City Hall workers got a clue that Mayor Sheila Brillson espoused the team concept on January 2, 1996 -- day one of her administration -- when she removed reserved VIP parking designations from the City Hall parking lot.

Contact: Office of the Mayor, (219) 873-1515

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The United States Conference of Mayors

J. Thomas Cochran, Executive Director
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