By Dale Martin
April 29, 2022
The fifth series of Citizens Academy concluded earlier this month. The Citizens’ Academy aims to educate interested residents (both city and non-city – no residency requirement to participate) about the history, organization and operations of the city. The series typically lasts six or seven weekly sessions, each lasting approximately ninety minutes. The first three rounds, kindly hosted by the Nassau County Council on Aging), went as planned. The fourth series, however, was cut short by the onset of the covid pandemic. Some participants from this interrupted series returned for the fifth series, most of which took place in the conference room of the city’s airport terminal.
I announced Citizens Academy in January and was surprised by the level of interest. In just two days, and combined with the “covid-interrupted” returnees, the class size grew to almost twenty people, more than I usually prefer. I had to start telling other interested parties that the class was full and they would be given preference for the next series to be scheduled in the fall. Although I haven’t officially scheduled the fall series yet (which should start in late September/early October and end before Thanksgiving), I expect my attendance limit has already been reached.
The main reason I limit participation is that the Citizens Academy (which is not my concept, but replicated in one form or another in hundreds of other communities and agencies, for example, the Nassau County Chamber of Commerce Leadership Nassau) is that the program aims to engage in interpersonal dialogue. I want the group to be small, not like a college freshman (is “freshman” still okay?) Psychology class in a cavernous auditorium (Dr. Beagley’s Psych 101, Alma College, 1981). In each series, it is fascinating to see the dynamics of the group develop and grow from session to session.
It’s for a similar reason that I don’t record sessions to share them electronically. My philosophy is that local government is about public and personal engagement. Anyone can easily log into a variety of electronic devices and/or platforms and “engage”. This is not how effective government policies and programs are discussed, evaluated and implemented. I want participants to step away from devices and computers and have a real conversation with their fellow citizens who (gasp!) often think differently than self-selected isolated participants on social media sites.
The fifth series began with around twenty participants, but due to external life forces, the number of regular participants dwindled to around a dozen. Most, as mentioned, were obviously committed; a few others were wisely reserved. From my perspective as host, this was the most diverse series of all: many of the previous series, perhaps due to the connection and promotion through the Council on Aging, attracted attendees who already knew each other, like spouses or neighbours. This group didn’t seem to have that initial familiarity, but the level of openness and comfort seemed to grow with each session.
The most engaging sessions, however, were those that involved other City employees. Residents generally have little reason to interact with department heads or even less frequently with junior staff. Similarly, department heads have minimal involvement with the general public. It is always a pleasure to showcase the professionalism, experience and insight of the department managers I have the privilege of leading in this community.
These managers and junior staff often speak a little more ‘free’ than I do when it comes to a variety of topics and issues. Many staff members have worked for the City for many years, longer than many current residents have lived here and certainly longer than many City Commissioners have served. Often, in the Citizens Academy, a “new” concept is mentioned: “Have you ever thought of doing “X”? More often than not, staff respond by sharing “war stories” of how the previous six efforts to do “X” failed for political reasons. For example, Mr. Jeremiah Glisson, who has worked for the City for over twenty years and now directs the City’s public works operations, has files and files of documents and diskettes outlining project needs and plans that have not yet come to fruition. .
The police and fire departments presented some of their personnel and exhibited some of their equipment. The managers of the marina and the airport shared their professional experiences and their operational vision of their facilities. The staff who operate perhaps the most technically demanding municipal facility, the sewage treatment plant, wowed attendees with their professional knowledge and dedication to their craft.
The Citizens’ Academy invigorates me. It reinforces that I am part of a profession committed to serving the general public and residents of my community. It is fascinating to see how participants begin to understand, some for the first time, the complexity and success of your local government, the place many of you call home.
Thank you to those who set aside time to participate in Series 5. I look forward to Series 6 in the fall.
Enjoy the return of the Shrimp Festival this weekend.
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