A Midwestern mayor who’s dedicated his life to public service takes on a national role
Rochester Hills, Michigan, Mayor Bryan Barnett has spent his entire career serving his community. Now, the 44-year-old has big plans locally and nationally as the new president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors.
Here on The Renewal Project, we like to feature the local leaders who are getting things done in their communities. Who better to talk to than mayors? That’s why we’re launching a series of conversations with mayors from cities big and small, and from coast to coast. Tell us why we should talk to your mayor. Email us at: firstname.lastname@example.org. —The Renewal Project Editor Margaret Myers
Rochester Hills, Michigan, Mayor Bryan Barnett has dedicated most of his professional life to public service. From his college days at the local Oakland University—where he served as student body president—to his tenure as a city council member, and now as mayor, Barnett has served his community, one of Detroit’s larger suburbs to the north.
The mayor is not only tasked with creating a vision for his city, he also has plans on a national level as the newly installed president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. One of his first roles as leader was presiding over the inaugural Mayors National Youth Summit, which took place this past month in Los Angeles. Over 100 young people, ages 16-22 and representing 25 states from across the country, gathered in Los Angeles to discuss how they can take a more active role in their communities.
We were excited to talk to the mayor about this recent gathering and what he heard from these budding leaders, his goals as mayor, and some of his favorite places to visit if you happen to find yourself hungry in Metro Detroit! Read our brief Q&A with the mayor, edited for length and clarity, and follow him on Twitter @MayorBarnett.
THE RENEWAL PROJECT: First off, this weekend you presided over the very first Mayors National Youth Summit—what’s the overwhelming message you heard from the young people?
MAYOR BARNETT: The overwhelming message that I heard was that the youth are ready to lead, to get involved, and to have their voices heard. It’s not “for the future,” but now. We had some fantastic members of youth represent communities from across the country who are active from across the political spectrum who want to get involved … who feel a little disenfranchised from leaders in Washington.
What is the job that best prepared you for being mayor?
Probably the one that launched my interest in public service. All the way back in college I was attending Oakland University here in Rochester Hills, about 18,000 students at the time. I wanted to get involved in student life. I eventually ran for student body president and was elected my senior year. I was able to hire seven or eight cabinet members, and we had a decent sized budget, 3 quarters of a million dollars, for a student office. I got to put together a plan and execute against it.
All of this helped formulate my interest in leadership, which became a launching pad for the rest of my career. When I graduated, I ran for city council, and have been serving ever since. I’ve been mayor for 13 years now.
Is there another mayor who inspires you?
There are a few, both Republicans and Democrats. Here locally, the job that Mayor Duggan and Mayor Weaver have done in challenging situations, in challenging communities to really turn their communities around, it’s something I’m proud of and recognize the challenge of that. I tip my hat to their leadership
Also, Betsey Price in Fort Worth and David Holt Out of Oklahoma City—they communicate exceptionally well and have created a vision for their communities.
What’s your favorite book?
The book that I read the most is the Bible, that’s an important book for me. The non-religious book I’ve read most recently is Michelle Obama’s Becoming. I found it to be an interesting read. Me and the rest of America!
What’s your next big goal as mayor?
I have both internal and external goals. Internally, we’re developing a really cool new park, our first in 25 years, Innovation Hills. It’s a dynamic, innovative, placemaking park and we just put down glow in the dark sidewalks. Nobody else is doing that. Delivering that park is my internal, City of Rochester Hills goal. When complete, this will be the region’s largest all inclusive playground.
Externally, now that I’m president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, I want to represent mayors across the country as best I can, in these unique, polarizing times. Mayors are the last bastion of nonpartisanship. We’re working hard to look like that … we don’t want to look like Washington.
Study after study shows that there’s not a lot of confidence [in the federal government], that there’s so much polarization. People trust local layers of government the most. That gives us great responsibility as mayors. People I respect in the world of mayoring, they’re incredibly different than I am. When it comes to getting things done, we have a responsibility to accomplish tasks.
What’s your city’s most underutilized resource?
I would say somewhat coming off the conference that I led last weekend, it’s likely our youth. We have two great universities in our city, a Top-10-rated school district, and though this is not exclusive to Rochester Hills, there’s a systemic problem with people not attracted to public service. If they’re young and innovative they want to work at Google. … We have to find a better way to tell our story, to empower our youth to get involved and understand the satisfaction that comes from a career in public service.
What surprised you the most about the job once you took office?
How many incredible challenges in trying to listen to represent all of the voices. And I have two kids, it’s hard to represent the different opinions of two young boys, let alone the thousands of people who have different experiences.
It’s like being a mom or dad; as mayor you are always on—Friday night at a restaurant, Sunday in church, at the grocery store. We have a kind community, but an incredibly engaged one. The 24-7 nature is always a bit surprising.
Even though you’re always “on,” you must have a favorite spot in town to hang out when you’re not performing your official duties. Tell us about it.
I really enjoy the Clinton River Trail and the Paint Creek Trail—they’re just beautiful places and I like to run so I’ll take my dog at least once a week to escape and enjoy Rochester Hills.
We often write about nonprofits that are doing great work in their communities. Can you tell me about a few of your favorites?
A couple that I’m passionate about: one is called Dutton Farm on the north side of town. They are creatively and actively engaging folks with developmental disabilities. They give them a purpose and a job, they sell candles and soaps. We visit there quite often. They give them a job and they feel purpose and included and dignity—all the things we take for granted.
And 100 Women Who Care. This is such a cool concept that we’re looking into launching 100 Mayors Who Care. [The concept is], they get together [four] times a year, each bringing a $100 check. They pitch a nonprofit they want to support, the women vote, the winning organization gets a check. It’s now up to about 300 women—so $30,000. (Editor’s note: the group has had as many as 280 members.)
It’s a unique way to funnel charitable dollars to the community. To raise $30,000 for a charitable organization, it takes a lot of work—an event, a race—this is just a simple way to pitch … you can earn the money in five minutes. It’s been transformational in our community. So far they’ve given back nearly $500,000 to the community.
OK, here is the lightning round. Name three words to describe your town.
Family-oriented, friendly, and close-knit. (Editor’s note: “beautiful” was also in the running, according to the mayor.)
What was your first job?
I was a paperboy for the Oakland Press. For five years, I delivered the news.
Chevy Cavalier. I think I paid $1,000 for it. I think it was a 1985.
Favorite subject in high school?
Civics and geography
Being from Michigan myself, I know about some of the lesser-known local food favorites, like Detroit-style pizza and Coneys. What’s your favorite Michigan food?
We’ll go hyper local. Here, we love our Yates doughnuts from our cider mill. Cider mills are some of the oldest businesses in town, they’ve been around since Abraham Lincoln. They’re still kicking it! When folks come here, we always introduce them to Yates’ doughnuts.
I can confirm these doughnuts are indeed delicious and a must-try!
Also the Coney Dog is still what this region is famous for and everyone has their favorite place to get them. Mine is Lipuma’s.
I haven’t been there yet, but I’ll add that to my list. Thank you Mayor!