“Be at the table.”
It’s sounds simple, sure, but Richland County Commissioner Marilyn John makes it her mission to be at the table with legislators, elected officials and constituents as she takes a proactive approach to improving the quality of life for the residents of her county.
John began her political career in 2010 when she was elected Shelby, Ohio’s mayor. Five years later, she saw a greater potential for her city and county and successfully ran for her position as commissioner.
“I saw a lot of possibilities for our community and felt that I could bring a certain skill set to the job and accomplish some things for our area,” she said. “I also really wanted to get Shelby more involved at the county level. Shelby was very independent, and I felt we could grow and prosper from being more involved and influential at the county level.”
When she took office, she discovered the county’s budget had not yet been passed and, because only temporary budgets were being passed, departments were unaware of how much money they would have for the year. John went to work, networked and learned from other commissioners how they ran their budgets, and, two months later, pitched the idea of passing next year’s budget ahead of schedule. That goal was accomplished, and the county was able to pass the next year’s budget earlier as well as set up a budget stabilization fund.
For John, that hands-on approach is vital to achieving success.
“You can’t change something if you’re not at the table where the discussion is taking place. You can’t impact it positively if you’re not in the room,” she said. “It’s important when you, as an elected official, see an area of concern, you need to be in the room where those discussions are taking place, to offer support, to offer ideas and to provide input.”
As a commissioner, John is front and center at many tables as she works to stay ahead of critical county issues, such as managing the negative impact of the adjustments to the sales tax. It is those challenges, she says, that make it important to stay in contact with those at the state level and the surrounding area and to be a part of CCAO.
“I learned so much when I first went to the new commissioner training, and I learn a lot from the different meetings and conferences I attend. While I learn from what other counties are doing and what works for them, I think I can also contribute,” she said. “I don’t think we achieve greatness as a state if we’re not all working together, and CCAO provides a great platform for commissioners to come together, to have a voice with our legislature so that they understand when they pass laws the impact that has on us as counties, financially and otherwise.”
The county is also still in recovery from the Great Recession, and the economy is a priority for John.
“Making the connection between job seekers and employers is a huge challenge, as are the reasons people can’t find jobs, whether it’s addictions, transportation needs or a lack in skills,” she said. “It’s not directly related to the General Fund Budget, yet they are things that fall to a county commissioner to be involved in the discussions with local entities.”
Like other Ohio counties, Richland County’s local entities are feeling the pains of the opiate epidemic, and John is the type of leader who is there to offer help in finding a solution in whatever way she can, even if it’s simply by attending a meeting.
“Those people who are in the trenches do the work. Having elected officials present in the room to show their support and be part of the conversation is important to the work they do,” she said, citing mental health boards, job and family services and the Richland Community Development Group (the county’s economic development arm).
Those practices of being available, to listen and offer solutions have been the keys to John’s success as both a city and county leader, and it’s something she encourages all county leaders to practice.
“Be present at community events and meetings. Be available. Residents need to feel that you are approachable, that if they call your office, you are going to take their phone call. I’ve called residents who have submitted Letters to the Editor to the paper because they have legitimate concerns, and I want them to know that they are being heard,” she said.
“I look at it very much as I’m just reporting to my board of directors, and my board of directors is 121,000 people. So when I get a call or complaint, I need to respond. The most important thing I can do, though, as an elected official is to listen.”
John is using her position as a leader to advocate for something else she is passionate about: children’s futures.
“I felt a huge obligation as an elected official to reach out to our young people. I want our young people to see their community leaders as mentors and available to them,” she said.
John started the countywide Leader Richland. The program, currently in its sixth year, brings junior high students to Richland County’s local college, where they meet with strong community leaders and travel around the campus to see what is it like to go to college. To date, more than 4,000 students have attended.
“I wanted our young people to understand what the possibilities were. We have a college in our county. It’s available. It’s doable. It’s possible,” she said. “They are our future. They are going to be county commissioners, mayors, council people and state representatives someday.”
And to John, it is the current leadership’s responsibility to foster tomorrow’s leaders.
“We need to be advocates, we need to be examples and we to be setting the bar high,” she said. “People want to achieve greatness. We just need to help them get there.”