In Brandon Johnson’s experience, student government classes tend to focus on national politics and the structure of government in Washington, D.C.
So when the Willamette University master’s degree candidate landed a student teaching job at South Albany High School, he decided to bring the government experience closer to home.
Johnson, himself a 2002 South graduate, invited Mayor Sharon Konopa (SAHS class of 1975) to speak to his American Government class on Friday. The idea was to show students “how to get involved in Albany, how to make a difference in the town you live in,” Johnson said.
Rep. Andy Olson. R-Albany, will speak to the same class on Tuesday, Johnson said.
As a high-schooler, Konopa told her audience of about 30 students, she didn’t pay much attention to politics outside student council. But being passionate about her hometown led her to an interest in helping to shape its future. She served 12 years on the Albany City Council and is now in her third term as mayor.
Students asked about economic development, mental health services, investment in city infrastructure and volunteer opportunities.
As part of the council, the mayor’s job is to help set policy while the city administrator manages the day-to-day operations, Konopa said.
She said she’s proud of the city’s economic development fund, and its efforts to work with existing manufacturers to expand their businesses and create partnerships. In particular, she noted the partnership between the cities of Albany and Millersburg and by ATI Wah Chang that created the artificial wetlands known as Talking Water Gardens.
That project, plus an upgrade at the wastewater treatment plant itself, was an investment of $70 million. The city also sold 30-year bonds in 2003 totaling $40 million to build the Albany-Millersburg water treatment plant, which put Albany in good shape for the future, Konopa said. The next challenge, she said, is street repair.
Konopa said her job’s biggest challenge is helping people see the big picture, versus personal issues they might be angry about — and coping with the periodic middle-of-the-night phone calls from people with a bone to pick.
That led to a question about mental health services, which Konopa said is a struggle for every community. She noted mental health issues can lead to homelessness, and said she formed a housing task force to work on providing more housing opportunities.
She urged the students who see panhandlers to give money instead to agencies that can help them become self-reliant.
As for volunteer opportunities, the city abounds with them, with close to two dozen boards and commissions plus a variety of programs through parks and recreation.
Students interested in becoming mayor themselves one day should start with one of those opportunities, she said, and then try for election to the city council.
“Really get to know local government,” she encouraged. “If I can do it, anybody can do it.”