Pre-Conference Activities

What is a pre-conference activity? Why is it necessary?

Girl giving speech at the capitol

As a participant in 4-H Capitol Experience, you are asked to complete at least one pre-conference activity from the list of options. These activities are designed to help you learn about local government in your community so that you can:

  • Better understand the similarities and differences between the workings of state and local governments.
  • Recognize the connections on certain issues between the state and local levels (such as school funding).
  • Collect some information that will be useful for local programs and projects after you have returned from Capitol Experience.
  • Obtain background information that may be helpful as you talk to policymakers in Lansing.

How can you conduct a pre-conference activity?

Select an option (listed below) that interests you. If you need some help in choosing an activity or in deciding how to proceed, talk with your local 4-H staff, leader, or teacher. Use the “A General Overview of Local Governments in Michigan” section of this page as background concerning the different types of local governments.

After selecting your option, carefully plan out the steps needed to gather the necessary information. Who do you need to contact? What questions should you ask? It isn’t necessary to write a report on what you discover, but it is important to make a few notes. There will be some opportunities for sharing that information at Capitol Experience and it will help you carry out a project after Capitol Experience.

Examples of pre-conference activities

Select at least one of the following options:

1. Learn about the responsibilities of elected officials.
Talk to one or two elected officials in your community,such as – mayor, county commissioner, city council member, and township board member. A few of the questions you might ask to help you better understand one of these units of government include:

  • What are some of the specific responsibilities of the position?
  • What are some of the services and programs that unit provides to its citizens?
  • What is the largest challenge or most difficult problem currently facing that unit of government and that elected official?
  • Does that official have much contact with the state legislators and/or other state policymakers (for example, someone from the Department of Natural Resources)?
  • Why would a village want to become a city? What are the benefits?

2. Follow a local issue.
Read your local newspaper carefully to help you follow an issue of current concern. (Keeping a clipping file might be helpful. Be sure to bring it with you to Capitol Experience.) Talk to family members and your friends about their opinions on the issue.

Some of the issues of concern in local communities might include:

  • Location of a landfill
  • Location of a halfway house
  • Residential treatment for the mental health system
  • School funding
  • Funding for certain local programs
  • Michigan’s economy
  • Local evacuation plans for the disabled or residents without private transportation.

After you have followed the issue for a while, has your opinion changed?

Do you see any ways that you might share your opinions on these issues with the local government officials that are dealing with it?

3. Attend a city council, township board or county commission meeting.
Call the city or township clerk to find out the meeting schedule. (You can find this telephone number in the white pages under your local government listing.) These are public meetings so all citizens are welcome to attend and simply observe the proceedings. A few suggestions as you watch the meeting include:

  • Can you figure out who some of the people are that are at this meeting – both as officials at the meeting and as members of the audience? What are some of their responsibilities?
  • What types of issues are being discussed at the meeting?
  • Are there any examples of citizens being actively involved with the decisions being made by the township board? (For example, a citizen might be giving testimony, writing letters, or otherwise actively participating in the process.)
  • How does the issue affect young people in your community?

4. Attend a school board meeting.
Call your local school superintendent’s office to learn the location and date of the next meeting. These are also public meetings where observers are welcome. A few suggestions as you watch the meeting include:

  • What issue or issues seem of major concern at the present time? Can you describe some of the different viewpoints on that issue?
  • Is there any reference to state government as some of these issues are discussed? How?
  • Are there any examples of citizens involved with the decisions being made by the school board? (For example, a citizen might be giving testimony, writing letters, or otherwise actively participating in the process.)

5. Familiarize yourself with your state senator or representative’s committee assignments.
Learn more about State Government by reading the Citizen’s Guide to State Government  from the Michigan Legislature website. In addition to writing your legislators about Capitol Experience, contact them (either directly or through their staff) to find out about their committee assignments in the Michigan Senate or House. Questions you might want to ask include:

  • What do these committees do?
  • What bills are these committees currently addressing?
  • Who are the chairpersons of these committees? Where are they from?

6. Investigate the effect of a petition.

  • How do petitions influence the policy making process on the local level?
  • Who decides the wording of a petition? How many signatures are required?
  • Find examples of petition drives that have affected your community.
  • Where do you submit petitions?

7. Tour a jail and/or juvenile detention facility.
Be sure to call ahead to schedule an appointment for your tour. Some of the questions you might ask include:

  • How does the length of sentences vary for different crimes?
  • Are prison sentences for juvenile and adult offenders different? If so, how do they differ?
  • If a juvenile is charged with a crime, where are they housed in the county?
  • What is the difference between a misdemeanor and a felony?

8. Visit a court session and observe what takes place.
Several different levels of the judicial system are open to the public.(District and Circuit courts are the most familiar. Probate Court, the Court of Appeals and Michigan Supreme Court are the others.) Call your Circuit Court or District Court administrator to find out the court schedule. (You can find this telephone number in the white pages under your local government listing.) A few suggestions as you watch the meeting include:

  • Can you figure out who some of the people are in the courtroom? What are their roles and responsibilities?
  • Who determines the defendant’s sentence – the judge or a jury? If there is a jury, how did the jurors get selected?
  • Who provides testimony?

9. Compare different forms of taxation by interviewing government officials.
Taxation comes in many different forms including taxes on county sales, property, income, state sales, intergovernmental transfers, motor vehicles licenses, county landfill charges and dog licenses.

  • Interview elected office holders, political party officials and other community leaders on the advantages and disadvantages of some of these different forms of taxation.
  • Who determines what should be taxed?
  • Who determines what the tax rate should be? (Public vote, elected officials, appointed officials?)
  • Is there a difference between a tax and a fee?

10. “Shadow” a local government official.
Make arrangements to spend part or all of a day with an appointed official. Possibilities include:

  • Tax assessor
  • County planner
  • Zoning official
  • Building inspector
  • Public health nurse
  • State inspector (DNR, Health Department)

Ask the government official questions such as:

  • How did you get this job?
  • What training was needed?
  • What are the major responsibilities of this job?
  • Do you work with the policymakers in Lansing? How?

11. Become familiar with the Michigan House/Senate districts in which you live.
Knowing how large, populous, and similar or diverse your districts are will promote understanding of how your legislators operate, the pressures they have to respond to and perhaps why they do some of the things they do.

  • How diverse is the tax base in your district?
  • Did the population of your district increase or remain the same in the 1990 census? How did this affect how federal funding is allocated?
  • Have the district boundaries changed over the last 10 years? How and why have they changed?

12. Learn about a political party.
Attend a local political party meeting. (The telephone numbers should be listed in the phone book, possibly in the yellow pages under political organizations.) Some questions to ask include:

  • What issues are of current concern?
  • How does one become a member of that party?
  • What does the party do prior to an election and between elections?

A General Overview of Local Governments in Michigan

Michigan has eight different types of local government. Each of these eight is designated as units of local government because they have taxing power or authority. In 2005, Michigan had 1,858 general-purpose governments:

General Purpose Governments:

  • Villages (263)
  • Cities (275)
  • Townships (1,242)
  • Counties (83)

Special Purpose Units:

  • School Districts (553)
  • Intermediate School Districts (57)
  • Community Colleges (28)
  • Special Authorities (# unknown)

Each of these units has its own governing body and it uses tax revenues for general operation.


The county is the largest subdivision of state government. There are 83 counties in Michigan, ranging in size from 316 square miles in Benzie County to Marquette County with 1,828 square miles. Most counties are approximately 500 to 900 square miles. Populations range from 2,300 in Keweenaw County to 1.8 million in Wayne County.


Townships have jurisdictions of nearly 95% of Michigan’s total land (36 million acres). Originally townships were to be 36 square miles, but they presently range in size from 600 square miles in McMillan Township to 2/3 of a square mile in Royal Oak Township. Township populations vary from about 100 to 80,000.

Village and Cities

There are 263 villages in Michigan with populations ranging from 150 to more than 8,000. Whenever a village incorporates as a village, it stays within a township. Incorporation as a city removes the area from township government. There are 275 cities with populations ranging from less than 500 to about 714,000 in Detroit. City governments have a great deal of flexibility in governmental structure, taxing powers and writing of ordinances.


The number of authorities is not documented. Theses units are formed to provide special services within or between units of government.

Local Schools– K-12

Local school districts are governmental areas with definite boundaries for the purpose of taxation and school attendance. These boundaries do not necessarily coincide with those of a city or township. School districts are administered by locally elected school boards, which vary in size (an average of 5 to 9 members).

Intermediate School Districts

The intermediate school districts are separate governmental units whose purpose is to coordinate special programs and services for a group of school districts. The 57 intermediate school districts in Michigan are governed by boards (5 to 7 members), which are either selected by the local school districts or elected by popular vote.

Information compiled by Elizabeth Moore, Extension Specialist, Michigan State University; updated 2011 by Claire Layman. Michigan Manual, published by the Legislative Service Bureau, is the primary source of the data listed above as well as the U.S Census Bureau’s website American FactFinder. The following websites contain more information about Michigan’s units of local government:

For More Information

Darren Bagley, 4-H Youth Development Educator
MSU Extension-Genesee County
605 N. Saginaw (corner of University Blvd), Suite 1A
Flint, MI 48502
tel: (810) 244-8515; fax: (810) 341-1729

For information about the Michigan Legislature, visit
For information about state government visit

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