Pontiac mayor runs city on 'volunteer power'

Dr. Deirdre Waterman is at helm of depleted city

By Paula Tutman - Reporter

PONTIAC, Mich. - Volunteers are the fiber that hold together non profits.

They keep organizations running. They are the unsung heroes of the world, in my view. Of course I would think that, I founded and run a non profit -- Children's ToothFairy Foundation -- on purely volunteer power to get uninsured children dental care. I never, however, thought I'd see an actual city run on volunteer power.

That's how Dr. Deirdre Waterman is running the city of Pontiac. Pontiac used have 800 city-paid employees. It now has only 20.

A month or so ago, I was asked to emcee the inaugural State of the City address for the new mayor of Pontiac. During her address, I listened to the reports of numerous task force leaders and heads of her departments. She has an ambitious plan to bring back the city of Pontiac from the brink of ruin. Fresh from the hands of an emergency financial manager who stripped the city of its police force, fire department and numerous city services, it was obvious there was a lot to be done.

But Mayor Waterman seemed optimistic at her very first political address. Afterward, I asked her if I could speak to her media specialist about doing an interview on her ambitious plans.

"You're looking at her," she said.

As a practicing ophthalmologist, she says she misses her patients and she misses surgery, and she misses healing the blind, but she has a new vision and calling. Without the resources to run her city she has employed gentle persuasion, charisma and enthusiasm. She has used it as the currency to convince dozens of men and women from the entire metro Detroit area to join her team as volunteers.

Volunteers run programs for education, senior citizen's programs and a host of other positions that would normally have a paycheck at the end of the work week. She's gotten others to invest in her dream of a better Pontiac. And there's a current of excitement even in the face of devastating statistics.

The city of Pontiac has a 21 percent unemployment rate, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. If you factor in young adults and teenagers, the new mayor puts that number at closer to 40 percent. The Census Bureau also reports that in 2012, 34 percent of Pontiac residents lived below the poverty level. Only 12 percent of the residents hold bachelor degrees or higher.

NeighborhoodScout.com is an interesting website. If you haven't plugged into it, you should. It pulls data from numerous sources to give real-time data on specific neighborhoods. It rates the safest cities in the country with a score of 100. Pontiac, according to NeighborhoodScout.com, is rated No. 1. It's considered one of the most dangerous cities in the nation when it comes to crime per capita. Based on the statistics, if you live in Pontiac you have a 1 in 124 chance of being the victim of a violent crime. Detroit, notorious for its crime rate, is actually rated No. 2. So Pontiac is slightly more dangerous than Detroit.

Mayor Waterman doesn't have a PR department, a driver or security. Even the school superintendent in Detroit has an in-house, tax-payer-supplied security guard who follows her even in her own secured buildings. That's not the case for the Pontiac mayor. She drives herself to her many stops. She answers her own phones and her own emails. Her niece who lives in Washington D.C. handles the city's Facebook and Twitter pages. She's pulling people from far and wide in a never-say-die spirit.

Her workforce is almost completely volunteer.

Will it work? Only time will tell. Mayor Waterman has been on the job since January. She's giving it her best shot and on the day we traveled with her, we found only admirers and those who are applauding her bold efforts to hold the city together with little else than gumption, chewing gum, prayer and cooperation.

If it doesn't work, it won't be for lack of trying. And besides, there's no one to fire. Almost everyone is a volunteer and so their investment is real and heartfelt.

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