The history of the Michigan Municipal League is a story of municipal leaders who volunteered to build and support a cooperative organization to improve municipal government. The League’s motto is “Cooperation solves any problem,” and its history illustrates that axiom. In the century since its founding in 1899, the League has brought together city and village officials to exchange information, to learn from one another, to develop unified policies on matters of municipal concern and to speak as a collective voice on those matters including, most importantly, home rule for local government.
Initially, they came together to “come to grips” with the state and, more specifically, the state legislature. At the time, all cities were chartered directly by the legislature. In the words of Harold D. Smith, the first director of the League, “they were at the mercy of a body composed of members who had little or no experience in municipal affairs.” Their initial efforts were focused on securing home rule for cities and villages, or as Smith put it, “bringing impressively to the attention of a rural legislature the problems of growing cities in the state.”
While the focus is no longer solely on the legislature, local officials have collaborated over the past century to represent and protect the interests of local government in Lansing. This has been done by city and village officials who define and shape League policy and who contact state officials to secure action, as well as by League staff acting as registered lobbyists for cities and villages. Later efforts included creating a League advocacy office in Lansing, hosting an annual legislative conference and using a variety of grass roots tactics to achieve political influence.
Indeed, much of the work of the League on a day-to-day basis can be viewed as “coming to grips” with the state.
But, they also gathered together to come to grips with themselves. In some ways, the perspective of local government officials a century ago was not unlike that of officials today. Elected and appointed municipal officials knew they had to improve the management and operation of local governments if they were to win the confidence of a cynical citizenry. The first constitution of the League, adopted in 1899, stated the League’s purpose as “the general improvement of every branch of municipal administration.”
Hence, they convened to share information, to learn from one another, and to stimulate improvements in municipal government. The products of their efforts, a century later, are manifested in a broad education and conference program, the inquiry and referral service and the resource center, a human resources/labor relations program, an employee benefits service and special efforts related to risk management and municipal consulting. This represents the other part of the work of the League: improving governing and government for the citizens of Michigan’s communities.