County Board gets better connected with the west side of Washtenaw County

By Lonnie Huhman,

One goal the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners had in holding a work session at Sylvan Township hall was to increase citizen participation and representation of constituents in board activities.

It seems to have worked.

50 people or so gathered on April 4 to talk about broadband inequity and teen mental health. The county board of commissioners said it was one of the best turnouts they’ve had for a work session, which typically has them looking deeper into two topics.

Washtenaw County Commissioner Jason Maciejewski pushed for a meeting to be held on the west side of the county so the commissioners could hear about these two important topics from those seeing them firsthand.

He was elected in November and represents District 1, which includes Chelsea, Sylvan Township, Dexter and Scio Township.

He said when he ran for the seat, he “heard a lot about these two issues.”

“This was great tonight to be able to hear from folks directly,” he said after the meeting.

He said the hope is the work session helped the county board understand the topics in ways they may not have thought about.

According to the county, access to affordable high-speed broadband has become a major challenge for residents, and while some communities have many options, there are parts of the county where no options exist, whatsoever. 

In the area of broadband inequity, the discussion had township clerks and officials from such places as Sylvan, Freedom, Dexter and Sharon townships talk about how they worry about the negative impact the lack of access is having in their areas, and many of them also spoke as parents and residents.

They said they worry about not having a solid connection to the Internet during election days; how it is hindering kids who need a good connection at home to do school work and is it preventing businesses from wanting to do business in their communities.

Sylvan Township Clerk Kathleen Kennedy said as a mom and clerk, there are concerns. She said in thinking about the equipment needed to run an election, what would happen if the township hall didn’t have Internet access during voting.

Chelsea Mikel, Sharon Township Clerk, said there are many times she has to leave the township hall to get township work done because she doesn’t have reliable Internet access. As a mom in Sharon Township, she said they sometimes feel they are at a disadvantage because so much of the school work requires good Internet access.

Melanie Bell, the network administrator for the Chelsea District Library, said the library sees the broadband issue as a community issue.

“The library has been very invested in making sure that our patrons have equal access to information and not having broadband in our service area, a third of our population not having access, is a serious problem,” she said.

She said the library has worked to provide Internet hotspots, but these are just band-aids and they see people having to really go out of their way in order to just get their homework or work done through the Internet. She said there is many times one will see people parked outside in their cars with their laptops hopping onto the library’s access.

Some residents at the meeting said there’s something wrong about knowing a cable is running near their property that could provide broadband, but the company provider will not hook it into their home.

State Rep. Donna Lasinski, D-Scio Township, also attended the meeting and said the issue of broadband access is and will remain a priority. She said understanding and accepting that this is basically utility issue is a good first step in improving access.

Barb Fuller, who is the citizen representative on Washtenaw County Broadband Subcommittee and a Sharon Township residents, said its impact is felt in so many ways from education, jobs/economic development, home values, heath and public safety and just in general quality of life.

Gary Munce, who is part of the team that is helping bring broadband to Lyndon Township, said the people without broadband need to be heard and pressure needs to be maintained until more solutions are developed.

He said a unifying effort is needed.

Everyone at the meeting agreed teen mental health and mental health in general is a top priority with needs that require more attention. It was noted by some in attendance that this topic has hit home locally with teen suicide being one of the saddest outcomes.

Dexter school board president Michael Wendorf went before the county commissioners to talk about Dexter’s perspective on this issue. He said Dexter sees this issue as one for the entire school district, but added it also goes beyond and is impacting many around the state, U.S. and world.

Citing various factors placed on students to succeed, he said the current environment sees students facing a lot of pressure.

Wendorf said Dexter has made it a priority to address mental health issues. He said the district is doing such things like having a district-wide conversation through meetings and discussions about mental health; having in-school activities addressing mental health to having its teachers get additional training.

He said this needs be talked about on a community-wide and county-wide basis because many kids feel under pressure and are experiencing the challenges that come with that through things like stress, anxiety and depression.

Wendorf told a personal story how these issues impacted his own family, which led to others in attendance sharing their own story. 

He said they all need to think about the pressures they are seeing placed on students.

Marcus Kaemming, Assistant Superintendent of Instruction, Curriculum and Human Resources for Chelsea schools, also spoke and said their district has also placed importance on addressing these issues. He said the district has been hit hard and wants to do all it can to give students the resources they need.

County commissioner Sue Shink said while in college she also experienced the pressure to succeed academically, which led to many negative feelings for her. She said she eventually found support that helped her greatly.

County commissioner Felicia Brabec said in her professional life she sees the issue around mental health growing and said it’s the county’s hope to help address some of these by working to improve access to services. She said one way it will do this is by using some of the funding through the county-wide millage that was approved by voters to help address mental health needs.

Bob Pierce, a Sylvan Township resident, also gave his own personal account of his family dealing with these issues and said everyone must remember mental health concerns are impacting all students, including students with special needs.

In looking at how to address mental health concerns, Maciejewski said it’s going to take a collaborative effort from the county to work with the school districts, community resources, providers and various other organizations.

He said the county will need to make good use of the funding it receives through the millage and help support some community-based solutions.

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