Altmann embraces chance to serve both community and university
When he’s not teaching psychology at MSU or enjoying a bike ride, is a city councilmember who strives to understand and address the needs of his constituents.
Altmann was born and raised in Edmonton, Canada, and came to the U.S. for graduate school at Carnegie Mellon University.
Altmann said he was studying artificial intelligence, but in the process found a new passion.
“Along the way I discovered that human intelligence was a lot more interesting than artificial intelligence, and so I switched over to psychology,” Altmann said.
After his post-doctoral studies at George Mason University, Altmann decided to pursue a faculty position at MSU. Altmann has lived and worked as an MSU professor in East Lansing since moving with his wife in 2000.
“East Lansing and MSU combined were sort of the obvious winner,” Altmann said. “MSU was clearly going to be a great place to work, and I really like the land grant sort of ethic, and East Lansing looked like just a really great place to live, so it was a no-brainer ... East Lansing is just the right speed for me. There’s just enough stuff to do, you can get your work done without being hassled, there is great people, great neighborhoods, love it.”
Altmann said his journey into politics is similar to those who to become involved; he began with discovering local government is important to the quality of life.
Altmann said his neighborhood had a noise pollution problem the council fixed when he spoke to them about it.
Altmann then began to attend council meetings frequently, following the work and learning more about local issues before realizing that work wasn’t getting done where he felt it needed to be. One thing led to another, and he campaigned, Altmann said. Altmann said the position challenges him, but allows him to make adjustments.
“I walked into a situation where everybody around me knew more about things than I did, and so what I had to learn was to basically approach everything as a question ... If I’m just missing something then somebody can tell me what I’m missing, if I’m not missing something then we can figure out what the answer is to the question,” Altmann said.
For Altmann, council is an opportunity to play a role in helping to fix things for the city and its residents.
“One of the things I do on a week-to-week basis is I accumulate a list of issues that city residents bring to me, and I meet every other week with the city manager and I go in with a prioritized list of things that I think make sense to try to address,” Altmann said. “It really is a representative democracy, I am representing the interests of the people who voted for me, they bring me stuff and I filter it, bring it to the city and they do stuff about it. That’s been just a tremendous amount of fun, but also interacting with city residents over issues that we have to decide ... that’s been a really rewarding process.”
Altmann said the policy goals he ran on, such as the city’s revenue shortfall, development subsidies and removing blight, are still the ones he wants to address during his tenure.
Altmann said progress has been made through the of some smaller buildings and increased pushback against developer requests for subsidies, but work still remains in several areas.
“We can’t cut services anymore to balance our budget because they’re cut to the bone, we need to figure out a way to generate new revenues,” Altmann said. “We’re making progress on that issue, it’s just the hard decisions are still pending.”
Mayor Pro Tem Ruth Beier said it’s a joy to work with Altmann because he’s always prepared and thoughtful.
“What I like most about him is he’s willing to consider novel solutions to problems,” Beier said. “I think that adds to council.”
Councilmember , who was elected in 2015 along with Mayor Mark Meadows and Altmann, said Altmann is very dedicated to the well being of East Lansing.
“He takes his job as councilmember very seriously, he works hard and does his research and talks with constituents and looks at the data,” Draheim said.
Altmann said his goal professionally has always been to be what he is now: a tenured professor at a Research I university. Now, he wants to do the best he can at both his jobs.
“That was always my goal but it’s one that takes you 40 years to achieve, you sort of start planning early and then eventually you get there and then you think ‘okay, what next?’” Altmann said. “It was right about that time that I started getting interested in local politics, and so it sort of made sense to go on to that as the next goal. I want to keep both my jobs now and do well at them because I love them both.”
Altmann said he encourages everyone to think about what it might be like to run for public office.
“It’s not something that really ever occurred to me until about five years ago, and so what that says to me is that there’s a lot of accidental politicians in the world, and in some ways they’re good for the system because they’re not the people who want to be the career politicians, they get involved because they see a need for something,” Altmann said.