Women who lead: Perspectives from Blue Water area local government

Elaine Leven never planned to be a city leader, but a growing interest in public service led her down the right path.opportunity found her.
Around the Port Huron region, cities and townships are both celebrating positive growth and dealing with challenges to further development. The Keel talked with four women who hold key positions in local government.


Elaine Leven, City Manager

City of Marine City


Elaine Leven didn’t see herself becoming a city manager, but she became more and more interested in public service, and she served as assistant to the township manager in Oakland Township for 10 years. She has been Marine City’s city manager since 2015.

Elaine Leven loves shaping Marine City."Things have been on the upswing here in Marine City. They're getting much better from the perspective of businesses," Leven says. "We still have just a little bit of availability of some of the storefronts in the downtown area. Some of them aren’t necessarily being fully utilized at their highest, best use," she explains. For example, some buildings are used as storage rather than storefronts.

And some residential areas need work. "Primarily, the things that we could do there are road and infrastructure improvements," but that is complicated by the minimal funding we receive from the state to use for local roads, she says.

Marine City is working on getting a functional transient marina. They are working with some of the owners and trying to get funding through some public-private partnerships. "It seems to be a hurdle we haven’t been able to get past yet," she says.

A new city office is in the works, with integrated office and meeting space. Marine City is also putting in new sport/activity fields at King Road Park, including pickleball and corn hole.

The city is also trying to get its ferry back up and running. There is an interested buyer, but "it's caught up at the federal level, trying to get the Border Patrol to come back and recognize this as an international crossing, and dedicate the staffing to the area," Leven says. The ferry "has had really a dramatic impact on the area as a whole, and we'd love to see it back up and running."

Pauline Repp, Mayor

City of Port Huron


Before becoming Port Huron’s mayor in 2009, Pauline Repp worked for the city for 25 years and retired as city clerk in 2008. She didn’t expect to come back. "I was really only technically retired for a few months—so it kind of got in my blood," she says. Port Huron Mayor Pauline Repp with Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer

One of the things Repp likes most about being mayor is "the sense of accomplishment when something works out. I like to help people, and I like to be a contributing factor to the growth of our community," she says. "I live here, too. It's my community not only because I'm the mayor—it's where I live, and I want to see it prosper."

The biggest challenge is always finances, Repp says. "We have never bounced back totally from the 2008-09 years, when property values dropped dramatically," and the city has struggled over the years to maintain the services residents expect, so making the city financially viable has been key, she says.

Looking ahead, ensuring the city's financial viability is important, and "we have been working hard on our amenities—the parks—and our neighborhoods," some of which have deteriorated, Repp explains. "We have a lot of programs with our Community Development Department to help people with simple things like painting," she says, and they sometimes use funds to demolish a house that can't be repaired, and then sell the property or partner with Habitat for Humanity to build a home.

In recent years, Port Huron has become more vibrant, she says. "We certainly have taken a turn for good. More development has been happening downtown, particularly," the industrial park is pretty full, and employment is at a peak.

Another positive change is a more collaborative philosophy in the area. "We were pretty much on our own many years ago, and that's the way it was. Now, it's a more cooperative effort with the county and surrounding communities. We often work together to make sure that we all succeed," she says.

One example is the former Thomas Edison Inn, which was being foreclosed on. Various parties—including the city and county—came together to develop what is now the convention center, the DoubleTree hotel, and Freighters restaurant. "If you didn’t have a cooperative effort with everybody, it would have been just the city of Port Huron’s problem. It would have went dark, and that would have been it," Repp says.

Jorja Baldwin

District 2 Representative, St. Clair County Board of Commissioners

Former Supervisor, Fort Gratiot Charter Township


Jorja Baldwin was appointed District 2 representative of the St. Clair County Board of Commissioners on July 1, after the Jorja Baldwin with Michigan Lt. Governor Garlin Gilchristformer representative resigned. Before that, she had been Fort Gratiot’s supervisor since 2012.

 

Her career in local government started through a co-op program at her high school. When she was 18, she worked in Fort Gratiot's building department as a summer job, and she got more and more interested in building, so she got her builders license. Fort Gratiot went through a boom in the 1990s—a regional mall opened, and hundreds of new homes were being built. "I got heavily involved in building review and the planning side of that—Where should the township go with all this development?—because it kind of came up quickly, without a lot of pre-planning," she says. She worked for a building official who let her help write ordinances.

 

Later, she worked with the assessor and became a state-certified assessing officer. "All of these things really tie in together. From an assessing standpoint, when you understand property, and from a planning standpoint, when you have the tools to know what can happen on the property and what should happen on the property, it really gives you a big picture view that I don't think you get if you're pigeonholed into just one of those departments," she explains.

Then, "In 2010, FEMA rolled out new floodplain maps, and it affected a huge portion of our township. Unfortunately, to that point, we hadn't really taken all that seriously floodplains and implications. The mapping that FEMA had put out prior was very general and not all that helpful," Baldwin says. "When the new maps came out, they identified areas very specifically, and all of a sudden, we had residents whose mortgage companies were saying you have to now purchase this $10,000 per year policy. So we had to learn pretty quickly what it all meant and what we should be doing." They realized they should have been doing some things a little differently, so she got more involved in floodplain administration.

Baldwin says one of her biggest challenges has been educating both the public and state legislators about the township and how it operates. For example, many residents assume the township has control over things that the state or county controls, like the roads.

"We're the closest to the action here in local government," and sometimes Baldwin needs to explain to state legislators why something doesn't work from a local standpoint, she says.

Baldwin loves talking to residents about changes they'd like to see. "That's probably my biggest challenge and one of my favorite parts all in one. I like helping people understand where we're coming from," she says. She points to the example of recreational marijuana, a proposal that passed by only 18 votes. Did the people who voted for it do so mainly to decriminalize possession of a small amount? Do they want to allow a shop in Fort Gratiot? "Our challenge is to find out: What did their yes vote mean?" she says.

Fort Gratiot is looking to expand its recreational activities, such as ax throwing, rock climbing, and other social experiences, which people seem to be craving, Baldwin says. Fort Gratiot developed a dog park, which is "more heavily used than any other facility we have," she says.

When Baldwin first got elected, Fort Gratiot built a new facility for its township hall to replace one that was too small. Aside from more space, the new facility has improved the township's professionalism and customer service. With the new facility, a stepped-up social media presence, and more community events, "I'm seeing a new sense of pride in Fort Gratiot," she says.

 

Denice Gerstenberg, City Manager

City of Algonac


Denice Gestenberg has been city manager of Algonac since 2017."I love having the opportunity to make a difference in the community," says Denice Gerstenberg, who has been Algonac’s city manager since 2017. She worked for Sterling Heights for 26 years before that. "In my career, I've been blessed with the opportunity to work on many unique projects. I've managed the construction of new fire stations, written grant proposals, overseen the development of numerous public parks, helped to develop a nature preserve, coordinated a nationally recognized STEM program, and initiated programs to bring a greater art presence to the community."

One change Gerstenberg noticed when moving from a larger city to a smaller one is working more with community groups. "Now I have a chance to work very closely with Algonac Alive, the Algonac Rotary Club, the Algonac VFW, and the Algonac-Clay Historical Society. It's those personal relationships and partnerships with fellow community members that has been a truly rewarding experience."

"Algonac is a beautiful, wonderful place to live, work, and play," and it has been undervalued for what it has to offer, Gerstenberg says. "Recently we have been working to improve our community environment and to start bringing exciting events and programs to the community." And they seem to be succeeding. The city held a glow-in-the-dark Easter egg hunt that they expected 125 kids to attend, but more than 500 showed up.

Algonac is also bringing in art and creativity "to strengthen community image and sense of place, to help make the city a major visitor destination. People can volunteer to paint fire hydrants or the base of light posts—anything that is not particularly attractive—and make it an art interruption," Gerstenberg says. They are also working with business owners to encourage murals that focus on Algonac's history, including its place in boating history.

 

A woman's place

Throughout her career, Gerstenberg says, "I am used to being the only woman in the room. I am used to having men challenge me. I have had men ask me if I was there to take minutes." She adds, "The higher you seem to go, the more you are the only woman in the room."

Baldwin says Fort Gratiot is a progressive township, where things feel equal between men and women, but sometimes expectations are different. At a recent event, someone asked her, "Who's with your kids tonight?" she recalls. "I was standing next to another man, about my age. He only has one child, but they didn't ask him where his kid was."

Baldwin notes, "I think it's important to remember that we all have a worth and we all have experiences that are valuable." For many years, she often was the only woman around. "When I first started in the building trades, and in the assessing trades, it wasn't women-dominated. I had to learn a lot," she says. "I think some of it comes from putting your experience and your value first. And then maybe other people see it that way, too."

Baldwin's mentor was Madelyn McCarthy, the supervisor who hired her in 1995. "If not for her dedication, professionalism, and teaching me that being a successful woman in politics was attainable, I wouldn't be where I am today. She showed me I could, so I did—and continue to do so," she says.

In her work, Repp says she is no longer the only woman in the room. "I've been around long enough to realize it's changed a lot," she says. When she started working at the city in 1983, "things were different then. There were not even female department heads in the city—everybody was a male," she recalls. People thought "that women basically weren't of the same stature as men, and weren't capable of being leaders. So I think that certainly has changed in the years that I've been around.”

When asked what advice she would give young women, Repp says, "Go for what you can go for, and don't be worried that you're going to fail. As a young woman, I was more concerned with 'What if I fail?' Don't be afraid to try something, and if you fail, you pick yourself up by the bootstraps, move on, and try something else."

Allison Torres Burtka is a freelance writer and editor based in metro Detroit. You can read some of her work here.

 

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