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Since becoming Mayor of Yellow Springs in 2017, Pam Conine — known around town as just Mayor Pam — has officiated 139 marriages, issued 92 proclamations, cut nearly a dozen ribbons and much more in the interest of serving her beloved community. (Photo by Reilly Dixon)

Building Community | Meet your mayor

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BUILDING COMMUNITY

This is the second in a series examining the meaning of community through the eyes of residents working to build and shape it in Yellow Springs.

That Mayor Pam Conine sees the village as one giant classroom should come as little surprise, considering that she was an educator for over four decades.

From the enduring spirit of volunteerism that teaches villagers ever new ways to get involved in the community, to her own efforts educating local children on the work of local government, Mayor Conine believes there are lessons to be learned around every corner in Yellow Springs.

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“In many regards, I feel that I am still a teacher,” Conine said in a recent interview. “That’s always been my goal: to create community inside and outside the classroom.”

Now in her third term as the village’s mayor, Conine said her tenure has been rife with lessons learned and lessons shared. As of this year, she has officiated 139 marriages, issued 92 proclamations — amounting to innumerable “Whereas”es — and cut nearly a dozen ribbons. Several times throughout each week, she works with district children, tutoring in math, language arts and, of course, civics.

All this work keeps the 72-year old village resident quite busy, but it’s in keeping with the promises she made to her soon-to-be constituents when she first ran for office in 2017.

“I wanted to be a visible and active mayor,” Conine said. “I sought to make something of the office of mayor and really put it to use for the village, for my community.”

Conine said she felt called to run for office when she heard former President Barack Obama’s farewell speech in 2017. Something deep stirred in her when she heard the call to action, “Change only happens when ordinary people get involved.”

“There it was,” Conine said. “The seed was planted.”

Conine’s campaign — a “three-legged stool,” she called it — centered around broadening the scope of the position’s traditional and ceremonial tasks, upholding the judicial responsibilities with a greater emphasis on social justice and continuing her role as a lifelong educator at every possible turn.

On those platforms, Conine was elected that year with 63% of the vote, succeeding Dave Foubert, who chose to retire rather than run again after 26 years in the office. Her first term began at the stroke of midnight on Jan. 1, 2018.

“I quickly got to work, getting the office to match my personality,” Conine said. “I tried to become a conduit for communication. If a villager needed something from me, they could call anytime.”

True to her word, Conine instituted office hours — a mayoral first in Yellow Springs. To this day her doors remain open Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, 1–5 p.m.

“Also when I became mayor, I immediately let all the teachers in the district know that I was at their beck and call,” Conine added. “I’ve always been willing to return to the classroom to talk about the history of Yellow Springs, to talk about what mayors do, judge science fairs — you name it.”

“And I wound up doing all of those things,” she said with a smile.

Conine said it’s not uncommon for her to teach even adults about the function of her role. As she explained, Yellow Springs’ governmental structure is unique. Unlike many municipalities, the mayor’s role in Yellow Springs is primarily judicial. Whereas magistrates or prosecutors oversee mayor’s courts elsewhere, Conine runs the show in Yellow Springs. Even the existence of a mayor’s court is novel, Conine said. The only other state to have them is Louisiana.

While the American Civil Liberties Union has historically been critical of mayor’s courts, noting that they tend to operate with little oversight and disproportionately prosecute people of color on minor offenses, usually with the intent to generate local revenue, Conine said she runs her court with restorative justice in mind.

“While I can’t change a charge, I can lower a fine or dismiss a case altogether,” Conine said.

Most cases Conine adjudicates — around 80%, according to her — are traffic-related offenses. Other cases include passing bad checks, assaults, animal- and tax-related cases and more misdemeanors. Crimes of violence and civil cases are sent to Greene County Municipal Court.

Conine acknowledged that there are some in the village who wish a lawyer would preside in the mayor’s court, but as she sees it, a lawyer on retainer would be a financial burden on taxpayers.

“I’m quite capable of adjudicating in my court and dispensing justice,” she said.

Adding to this belief is the simple fact that, according to Conine, fewer and fewer people are summoned to mayor’s court. In working with former Police Chief Brian Carlson and the Yellow Springs Justice System Task Force several years ago, Conine led the charge to reduce pretextual traffic stops.

“Now, officers are making fewer stops and issuing out more warnings,” Conine said. “A lot of changes have been made to the way we police in Yellow Springs during my tenure, and that’s a good thing.”

Much of Conine’s inclination to integrate restorative justice into her judicial practices stems from her lifelong love affair with history and progressive social movements. She comes by her politics honestly. Her father was one of the few Democrats in Hancock County, Ohio, so when Conine was growing up, the conversations around the family dinner table were often lively. 

“My dad was a lone blue dot in a sea of red,” Conine said. “Now, doesn’t that sound familiar?”

She later received her first degree in education with a social studies emphasis from Miami University and began her career as a teacher in Piqua, where she taught for five years. When a friend convinced Conine to move to Yellow Springs — a place more in line with Conine’s ideals — she soon found work at Morgan Middle School. Former Superintendent Ed McKinney hired her as a special education instructor, a position Conine would hold for the next 30 years.

“I’ve known since second grade I wanted to be a teacher,” she said. “The act of going to school, of learning, of being in community with other students and eventually other teachers — I love it all.”

This community-minded outlook coursed through much of Conine’s curricula and career. Time and again, she would break the confines of the classroom and take her students into the community for hands-on lessons.

“Back in the day, we could load the kids in this little blue van and take them wherever. Can you even imagine that now?” Conine laughed.

Conine remembered fondly taking her students to The Riding Center to participate in the center’s weekly therapeutic horse riding program. Each lesson would be oriented around horses. Math, history, literature, science — all of it would be tailored to the horses her students could see and touch.

In the fall, Conine would work with her special education classes to create the perfect Thanksgiving dinner. She’d work with her students to plan elaborate menus and, once they landed on the best ingredients and set a budget, she’d again whisk them beyond the classroom walls. To Weaver’s they’d go.

“We even learned how to make pumpkin pies from scratch,” Conine said. “The farmer on the edge of town would let us pick our own pumpkins from his field. The kids loved that.”

Then, in the 1990s, conventional pedagogy started shifting. Whereas before, special needs students would be pulled out of general education classrooms, state and national standards told educators to reintegrate their classrooms with students of all levels and needs.

“The inclusion was great,” Conine said. “Our community was growing.”

Although she eventually retired from McKinney Middle School in 2009 — after passing through the lives of hundreds upon hundreds of middle schoolers — Conine couldn’t stay away from the classroom. She soon began adjuncting at Antioch University Midwest.

“It was always a goal of mine to teach college, but I could never pry myself away from middle school, if you can believe that,” she said. “But after six years at AUM, I finally drew the line and stepped away.”

It was hard for Mayor Pam to say that she missed teaching because she never fully stopped. Next Monday, she’s going to start having weekly meetings with a local third-grader to work on his literacy skills.

“I can’t say no to that,” Conine said. “In a sense, that’s what I was elected to do.”

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3 Responses to “Building Community | Meet your mayor”

  1. Andrea Cobbs-Waterman says:

    Wonderful article! Ms. Conine will always be one of my favorite teachers. I thank her every time I see her for teaching me a different way to learn math (balancing a checkbook) among the many things she taught us. YS could not ask for a better mayor as far as I am concerned.

  2. Mayor Pam says:

    Thank you for your positive comments, Randy. To this day, I can remember 95% of my teachers from kindergarten on, most with great fondness. Of course, there were the Miss Renyolds who rose like cream to the top, and those were the ones who–like your experience–left a life-long impression on me. But good or not so good, I learned from them all–what to do or what not to do–in my future classrooms.

  3. Randy Lee Deitsch says:

    What a wonderful read… My teacher in 4th grade was Miss Renyolds and I really liked her, the way see talked, the way she walked around the class room saying how much she loved teaching… I learned so much that year and to this day I think of her still… MAYOR PAM, you are a “GEM” TO YELLOW SPRINGS, just like Miss Renyolds was a “GEM” to my hometown of Crestline, Ohio back in 1958…

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