As she sat, slowly stirring then sipping her coffee at the University Cup, Mayor Kathy Ling recalled a time nearly 40 years ago when her gender was used to restrict her.
It was the 1970s, and Ling was serving on the Isabella County Commission. After serving for a short time, a newly elected group joined Ling on the commission, where she was the only woman.
Ling had been serving as the chair of the two-person finance committee when she was informed there would have to be a bit of a demotion, if only for appearances’ sake.
“The chairman said I would be staying on the committee, but he looked at me and said, ‘Of course you’ll understand, I will have to make the man the chairman of the committee because it would be very embarrassing for a man to be on a committee with a woman as chair,’” Ling said.
“You’re kidding me. And you let him live?” Vice Mayor Sharon Tilmann interjected jokingly with hints of disgust and disbelief.
Of course, Tilmann said she can also remember a time when the classifieds section was divided by male job openings and female job openings.
Tilmann said the managerial positions were mostly for men, while women were supposed to be secretaries.
Now, Ling and Tilmann serve as the mayor and vice mayor, the first time in the history of the Mount Pleasant City Commission that two women have held the positions at the same time.
“We’ve come a long ways, baby,” Ling said.
Both women have years of experience in local government.
Ling was on the County Commission from 1976-80, then was re-elected in 1982 and served until 1984. Next, Ling went back to teaching English and social studies at Mount Pleasant High School, retiring in 2006 after 25 years.
She began serving on the City Commission in 2008, after winning election in 2007. She served as vice mayor for two years before being selected as mayor last month.
Tilmann got involved with local government in the late 1980s, serving on the Parks and Recreation Committee, moving to the Planning Commission and then being appointed to the City Commission in 1995.
In 1997, Tilmann was the vice mayor, and the following year, she was mayor. She stayed on the City Commission until 2001, and then left to serve four years on the County Commission.
Tilmann returned to the City Commission in 2009 and has held a faculty position at Central Michigan University’s Counseling Center since 2004.
Ling said being able to talk directly to people is one of the reasons she enjoys being involved with local government.
“People can call you up and tell you what their concerns are,” Ling said. “Or, they can easily come to a meeting and express their concerns.”
Tilmann and Ling said they feel citizens getting involved in local government is very important.
Ling said the human rights ordinance approved in July 2012 was an example of local government at its best because it was citizen-initiated.
“They did their homework, and they brought people to meetings and made it clear what they wanted to happen, but they were also understanding that the commission had to look at the issue and have our attorney review it,” Ling said. “It was a really collaborative issue and, to me, that’s what local government is about.”
The saying that “democracy is not a spectator sport” rings true for Tilmann. Her pet peeve is people who complain and don’t take action, she said.
“If you have an issue and you’re passionate about it or invested in it, get off the couch and get involved,” Tilmann said. “That’s what got me in local government to begin with.”
Having been born and raised in Mount Pleasant, Tilmann said she’s very protective of her hometown.
“I want to give some direction and guidance,” Tilmann said. “I just want to see people involved. It’s something I harp on a lot.”
Ling and Tilmann said they have been told they complement each other.
While Ling is known for her impeccable research and sifting through the details and fine print, Tilmann looks at the bigger picture.
Ling also said Tilmann’s knowledge of local history because of her upbringing is valuable to the commission.
“I think since I came on commission for this round, we’ve always called each other when one of us had an issue we were concerned about or maybe had a certain perspective and said to the other ‘what do you think?’ and discussed it,” Tilmann said.
Although the bond shared between Tilmann and Ling is unique, Ling hopes she can share that bond with everybody on her staff.
“We don’t always see things the same way, but we respect each other’s opinions, which I’d like to think that’s true with all of my fellow commissioners,” Ling said.
In the years they have served together, the commission has tackled some big issues, including settling the lawsuit with the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe in 2010 and the purchase of the Mount Pleasant Center property in 2011.
These were not lightweight issues, Tilmann said, and she’s proud with the decision-making process and outcomes of these situations.
Now, the commission is tasked with figuring out what will become of the Mount Pleasant Center property and finding a way to balance the budget.
Although revenue continues to shrink, Ling said she doesn’t see more cuts as an option.
“We’ve cut to the bone,” Ling said. “I think we have a lot of people wearing many hats on city staff. I think we need to address the issue of what services we want to have and how we’re going to fund them. That’s a major issue.”
To keep Mount Pleasant thriving and people staying, she said, there needs to be good public safety, lots of activities for people of all ages, good school systems and an inviting place to raise a family.
Ling said those are the things commissioners need to keep their eyes on.
With her term expiring at the year’s end, Ling said she is still unsure if she will run again.
Tilmann will not have to decide for a little longer whether she will stay, as her term expires at the end of 2014.
Things have indeed come a long way since the days when Ling was regulated to second-in-command on a committee to avoid bruising the ego of a male colleague.
Things have even changed in the last 15 years from when Tilmann was mayor and overheard a group of men assuming the mayor had not shown up because “he” was running late as she stood right in front of them.
“(When we were elected), I don’t think this commission voted male-female,” Tilmann said. “I don’t think the guys voted that way, and I don’t think the women did. Gender was not an issue.”
“I truly don’t think it was either, and, to me, that means we’ve made progress,” Ling said.