BY AJ TRAGER
YPSILANTI – By day, Amanda Edmonds is executive director of Growing Hope, an Ypsilanti based nonprofit that improves nutrition, encourages self-reliance and promotes positive community futures. By night, she serves as the mayor of Ypsilanti, balancing the needs of nearly 20,000 residents with the financial needs of the city.
Edmonds won the election in November 2014 by a landslide, winning 97 percent of the vote. Originally from St. Louis, Missouri, Edmonds moved to Michigan in the mid-1990s and is a twice alum of the University of Michigan School of Natural Resources and Environment.
Many cities in the country have what is called a weak mayor system, where the mayor’s powers of policy-making and administration are by charter.
“A part-time mayor is a better way to say it,” Edmonds joked.
Ypsilanti has a city manager who runs the day to day operations of the city and a council. Edmonds doesn’t decide on roads or manage the police chief. She is chief elected officer but not the chief operating officer. The city of Ypsilanti is only 4.3 square miles with Eastern Michigan University entirely within the city’s borders. So, a big chunk of the city is non-taxable. Ypsilanti Township also has another unit of government, governing just over 50,000 people.
“Like many cities in the country, in southeast Michigan overall, the financial situation for the city to survive and thrive is hard and has been since the recession,” Edmonds said.
Ypsilanti was one of the first cities in Michigan to pass an LGBT non-discrimination ordinance in 1997. City residents tried twice to repeal the ordinance, but both times their efforts were unsuccessful.
“I think people think of Ypsi as a pretty welcoming place,” Edmonds said. “We don’t have a gay bar, but it’s a pretty welcoming place. I think Ypsi is a place where a lot of LGBT people come and buy houses.”
Ypsilanti is an affordable place to buy property. Edmonds says that Ypsi has many LGBT neighborhoods that are so integrated into the Ypsi community that they don’t need to identify as LGBT-specific.
Being an out LGBT person of power who is focused on community change and outreach, Edmonds works in the art and science of messaging and says the hard part is the public exposure and the negative statements she gets from critics.
“That’s hard stuff to open yourself up to,” said Edmonds. “That’s real and you’re very, very vulnerable. It’s still hard for me to not let that kind of thing eat away at me. I don’t experience as much as some people in other places, but some still hurts just as bad.”
Edmonds was happy to be one of the mayors to sign onto the amicus brief for DeBoer v. Snyder, one of the same-sex marriage cases that went before the U.S. Supreme Court, and is listed as one of nearly 500 “Mayors for the Freedom To Marry.”
“I am grateful for the opportunity to learn everyday,” she adds, “and to do my best everyday and learn my way through a really big and challenging position.”
Ypsilanti has a pretty challenging financial situation and Edmonds says there are many reasons the city is in such a financial position. Unlike some communities that have had emergency financial managers, the financial struggles of Ypsilanti aren’t due to corruption. Edmonds says there is strong central government that is trying to function with fewer and fewer resources and do the same amount of things.
“It’s not like in my nonprofit sector where, if my budget shrinks, I can stop doing something. You have the same scope, the same geography and about the same people and,” Edmonds said, “that just is real.”
Edmonds works on strengthening policy, strategy and city-wide priorities as part of the governing body and serves as, in her words, “ambassador” — which is partially why she ran for mayor.
“The former mayor described it to me. He said, ‘I think of it more as domestic and international relations.’ Domestic because the mayor chairs the city council and has one of seven votes. And international relations is because the mayor represents the city a lot in meetings with boards and other bodies and publicly in many ways.”
As a part-time mayor, there is plenty to do. Edmonds has to choose what she will focus on and where she wants to put extra energy. She is currently working on economic development for the city.
Economic development for Edmonds is holding discussions on buying from local businesses with EMU, the biggest employer in the city; working with some of the problem sectors that the community has identified through a master planning process called “Shape Ypsi”; focusing on the growth areas of opportunity the city provides; and determining how to connect the dots between what the city needs and the services that are readily available.
The Ypsilanti community has already identified what it needs, Edmonds said, so she works on furthering conversations to identify where more collaboration can happen to move the communication forward.
“I am really passionate about local economy and locally, independently owned businesses and how we strengthen our local economy,” she says, “and how we as a city government work with area partners around policy work and system work that strengthens the local economy.”
However, Ypsilanti just reached a poverty rate of 30 percent.
“That’s no joke,” Edmonds pressed. “While there is real struggle going on, there are also all sorts of awesome things. We have a strong local business community that is racially and culturally really diverse in terms of ownership. My vision, and to me my charge as mayor, is how we continue to build up and develop in a way that is really inclusive and helps people thrive.”