Guest Columns

LINKHART: MUNICIPAL LEAGUE CONTEST GETS KIDS THINKING

Young Colorado teens share their insights on what they would do if they were mayors

Let’s invite kids to town council meetings because they are an important part of the community. Or we could hold a council meeting just for kids so they could voice their opinions about what they think our town needs. They would be free to give suggestions for improvement. Then they could learn if what they want is practical and affordable.

Sounds like something a mayor or town manager may have said, right? Wrong. Believe it or not, this terrific suggestion comes from Ashlyn Pike, a seventh-grader at Trinidad Middle School, in Trinidad.

Ashlyn shared her insights with the Colorado Municipal League through our first “If I Were Mayor…” essay contest, which invited Colorado seventh-graders to tell how, if they were mayors, they would educate the youth in their communities about the importance of municipal government.

More than 300 students participated, and their thoughts were fresh and innovative. And, as we read their entries, the Municipal League board and staff learned that Colorado’s kids have potentially important ideas and are willing to share them. All we have to do is ask!

The contest was co-sponsored by the Colorado Local Government Liquid Asset Trust. Each winner received a $500 savings bond, was recognized at the Municipal League’s annual conference in Steamboat Springs in mid-June and delivered his or her essay during the conference’s luncheon for elected officials.

Regional winners were:

• Denver metro: Stetsen Mathias, Aurora Academy, Aurora. Teachers: Laura DeVanon and Donna Seekamp.

• South: Ashlyn Pike, Trinidad Middle School, Trinidad. Teacher: Gloria Palomino-Simms.

• Eastern Plains: Connor Carey, Sterling Middle School, Sterling. Teacher: Sandy Underwood.

• Western Slope: Krysten Desiree Garcia, West Grand Middle School, Kremmling. Teacher: Laura Gore.

The Municipal League launched the contest in an effort to enhance civic engagement, one of the board’s stated goals for 2007-09. Our organization is committed to raising the general public’s awareness of the importance of municipal government. We thought an effective way to accomplish this would be to reach out to youth across the state. By engaging our youth, we also connect with their parents, teachers and others in the community.

Adults need to find ways to engage kids, as we’ve done with this contest. Don’t assume they’re not interested or that they wouldn’t have anything of value to contribute. No matter what you do for a living, consider how your community’s youth could become engaged in your field.

In our case, asking students to think about municipal government forced them to consider all of the services their municipalities provide (police services, parks, recreation centers, traffic signals, hiking trails, etc.). It made them realize that these resources don’t just magically appear. The kids now have some understanding of why their parents pay taxes. Many of them had never even heard the term “municipal” before. Now they have a basic understanding of local government. It’s definitely a step in the right direction.

Even the governor is interested in the kids’ opinions. Gov. Bill Ritter recently signed legislation that will give young people a formal role in advising the Colorado Legislature on the issues facing the future of the state. House Bill 1157, sponsored by Rep. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango, and Sen. Sue Windels, D-Arvada, establishes a Youth Advisory Council of 40 voting 14- to 19-year-old members and four nonvoting members from the Legislature. The council will meet at least four times a year and will provide the General Assembly with perspectives from young people on proposed and pending legislation and other issues.

To read the winning essays in their entirety, visit www.cml.org. Remember, kids are an untapped resource and are willing to share their ideas — reach out and ask for their insights. You may be surprised by what you learn.

Doug Linkhart is a Denver city councilman and the newly elected president of the Colorado Municipal League, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization established in 1923 that represents the interests of 264 cities and towns in Colorado.