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Published: Sunday, 11/26/2006

Young mayor gets hang of running Hillsdale

BY BENJAMIN ALEXANDER-BLOCH
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Mayor Michael Sessions, 19, wields his gavel to close a recent session of City Council in Hillsdale. Mayor Michael Sessions, 19, wields his gavel to close a recent session of City Council in Hillsdale.
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HILLSDALE - The mayor still lives with his mom, dad, and sister in the house he grew up in. He still fights with his sister. His mom still cooks and cleans for him.

Mayor Michael Sessions is now 19, a freshman at Hillsdale College, and has just finished his first year of a four-year term in office.

"It's taken a while, but I think I'm just starting to figure out how to do it, build consensus and all that," he said. "At first, it was all a bit overwhelming."

Journalists from around the world made the pilgrimage to Hillsdale (population 8,230), an hour and a half's drive northwest of Toledo, to interview the young mayor after the Nov. 8, 2005, election, when the write-in candidate bested incumbent Mayor Douglas Ingles by two votes.

A recount declared Mr. Sessions victorious. He appeared on national television shows, including Late Night With David Letterman, and was parodied on Saturday Night Live.

Gathered around the dinner table are the mayor, Michael Sessions, right, and his parents Scott and Lorri Sessions. Gathered around the dinner table are the mayor, Michael Sessions, right, and his parents Scott and Lorri Sessions.
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"All the attention was a bit much a bit of a headache," he said.

Hillsdale's Web site received 250,000 hits less than a month after the election.

"We have a lot more attendance at our council meetings because of the mayor and the human-interest story there," said City Manager Tim Vagle, who runs the city's day-to-day operations.

The Hillsdale College student and mayor heads toward a night meeting of City Council. The Hillsdale College student and mayor heads toward a night meeting of City Council.
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While the media blitz has quieted, residents hope his moment in the spotlight helps warm Hillsdale's faltering economy.

On the mayor's two-minute commute from home to City Hall, he passes five "For Sale" signs.

Like many cities in Michigan, Hillsdale is in flux, trying to find an identity apart from the declining American automotive industry that once defined it.

Five major automobile-parts factories have left town, resulting in the loss of more than 1,600 manufacturing jobs within four years, according to Reb Turner, executive director of

the county's Industrial Development Commission.

Mr. Sessions ran on a platform of economic revitalization and continues to stress it, in part because he watched his father's struggle.

The mayor was a sophomore at Hillsdale High School when his father lost his job at Fasco DC Motors, a company for which he worked for 26 years.

"Seeing my father out of work well, it hit hard. And it made me understand what others were going through, I guess," the young mayor said. "And it made me want to run [for mayor] to fix things."

Mayor Sessions, along with the city manager and economic development director, is working to create tax incentives, improve the city's 415-acre industrial park, and rehabilitate buildings downtown to attract new business.

Since the mayor's election, the city has experienced renewed investment.

"We've seen about $11 million in investment in our factories, and, I'll tell you, we haven't seen that kind of investment for years here," Mr. Vagle said.

In July, Cobra Sport Inc., a motorcycle manufacturer, relocated to Hillsdale, creating about 70 jobs. Southern Michigan Tool will soon begin a $4 million expansion that would double its work force to 60 by the end of the year, and Cadence Innovations says it could add 100 more people in the next 12 months.

The mayor has secured a $75,000 Community Development Block Grant to rehabilitate the Keefer House, a three-story brick building from the 19th century that was one of Hillsdale's original hotels.

Like the city itself, Mr. Sessions' father, Scott Sessions, is now back on track.

With assistance from a North American Free Trade Agreement program, his father went back to college and received an associate's degree. After two years of unemployment, he is now a medical technician at the Hillsdale Community Health Center.

Over the past few weeks, the mayor and the city manager have butted heads, ruffling feathers in the community.

On Nov. 7, voters passed three charter amendments that were phrased in a way that makes them unconstitutional, illegal, invalid and/or unenforceable, according to Assistant Attorney General George Elworth.

The three amendments call for the mandatory staffing of the fire department by four full-time firefighters, limiting the city manager's service to not more than 9 1/2 years in a 20-year period, and requiring the replacement of a city official to be by a regular election, not by council appointment.

Mr. Vagle, the current city manager, will have served 9 1/2 years at the end of this year. But Mr. Elworth said it is unconstitutional to limit the term of an elected office who is in office.

"I would say it is not a stretch that this amendment is targeted specifically at me," Mr. Vagle said.

The day after the election results were announced, Mr. Sessions sent a letter to City Attorney Lewis Loren asking him to discuss severance and resignation with Mr. Vagle. The mayor also sent this letter to Mr. Vagle, council members, and to the local media.

"I feel like since these amendments were passed overwhelmingly, we now need to find some way to do what the people have expressed the desire for us to do," the mayor said. "I feel like this was a vote of lost confidence on his job performance."

Some residents sent letters to council expressing dismay at the way the mayor has handled the situation.

"I think the mayor has put himself in the limelight, and I think instead he should have worked more closely with the City Council before writing the letter and sending it out," said Hillsdale resident Jill Taylor.

Mr. Vagle agrees.

"I do not believe that the mayor was representing the council when he distributed the letter to the press," Mr. Vagle said. "I think the council needs to address the mayor's use of city letterhead to address his personal opinion to the press.

"It is the council that can hire and fire the city manager, not the public," Mr. Vagle continued.

Many residents said they voted for Mayor Sessions because they hoped he would "add new blood" to rejuvenate their city.

"Me and about half the town have been laid off. I hope he can shake things up a bit," said John Kast, 40, who used to work for EaglePicher's Hillsdale Tool and Manufacturing division.

When EaglePicher filed for bankruptcy in April, 2005, the 400 people at Hillsdale Tool lost their jobs. Mr. Kast is now a group leader at Asama Coldwater Manufacturing of Coldwater, Mich.

"Hillsdale was a good, strong place to work, but now you can't really get a decent-paying manufacturing job around here," he said.

In 2004, there were 356 houses for sale in the county; now there are 597, according to Shirley Smith, executive officer of the Hillsdale County Board of Realtors.

She said the majority of houses for sale are in the city of Hillsdale, and many are on the market as a result of repossession.

Chris Ludeker, whose house has been up for sale for more than a year, said she voted for the mayor so perhaps he could "rattle things up."

Her brother, Kirk Maxon, lost his job in Hillsdale and tried unsuccessfully to sell his house for years.

"Eventually, he just left town and let the home go back to the a bank," Ms. Ludeker said. "He's now found a job in Phoenix, Ariz."

She said she has seen Mr. Sessions at various parades and at the county fair. "The thing I like most about him is that he's out there making a huge effort to get into the public and meet with regular people."

Mr. Vagle said that the mayor's style of leadership is different than the city's past two mayors.

"For one, most of our conversations are done with e-mails. I think that is consistent with his age and culture," Mr. Vagle said. "He also seems to be very active with meeting with members of the public. He has attended many more events than past mayors I have worked with."

Mayor Sessions naturally treads the city's socioeconomic divide.

"He goes and talks to the people in the overalls not just the people with the coat and tie," said Richard Wunsch, the owner of Volume 1 Books, a used bookstore directly across from City Hall.

While the city's top employer is Hillsdale College - the private, nearly 200-acre school that sits atop the area's highest hill - the city's core, year-round population is blue collar.

"Now with the mayor being a student at Hillsdale College and getting to know the students there, I think there is a lot of potential to create a symbiotic relationship between the city and the college," said Jay Bahr, the city's economic director.

Mr. Sessions grew up between these two worlds. His father was a factory worker and his mother, Lorri Sessions, is a custodian at one of the college's sororities, which gives the mayor free tuition at the $17,867-a-year school.

All and all, his classmates at college see him as one of the guys. "I think he just wants to be like every other 19-year-old," said John McNamara, 20. "At first it was kind of different, but now he's just a normal friend."

The boys at Delta Sigma Phi frat house said they've seen him around. "He's very cool. He's got his head together. He won't party, though. He won't touch any [alcohol]," said Delta member Jason Stomps, 18.

But, for now, the mayor is safe at home. His mom still answers the phone and tells his constituents and fans, "he'll call you back as soon as he gets home from school."

"Oh, and he really has to clean his room. It's horrible," Mrs. Sessions said one evening before a council meeting. "It's not for public viewing."

Contact Benjamin Alexander-Bloch at: babloch@theblade.com or 419-724-6168.



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