By Dale Martin
December 17, 2021
Earlier this week, several local officials (Mayor Michael Lednovich, Nassau County Commissioner John Martin, Nassau County Manager Taco Pope, and me) were invited to share our backgrounds, experiences, and challenges with members of the Nassau County Chamber of Commerce Leadership Nassau class.
Leadership Nassau is a long running successful community leadership program. The program participants (accepted by application) are provided a wealth of opportunities to meet community leaders, visit area facilities (public and private), and study regional issues. More details can be found on the Chamber’s website: www.islandchamber.com/leadership-nassau.html.
Leadership Nassau is an outstanding example of an introductory effort to educate and inform interested residents how area businesses and governments operate. Many local officials and industry icons have participated in the program or served as a speaker/mentor to the program. One of my comments to the participants this week was my general frustration with how few people understood how local government functions.
Mayor Lednovich, in his remarks, highlighted the important role of local government, having an impact likely far greater on personal quality of life than state or federal government. Local government officials are typically more accessible and the issues they address much more personal. Despite that strong local bond, local government organization and operations aren’t taught in schools or universities.
One of the likely reasons for this lack of instruction is the diversity and distinctiveness of local governments. Every local government has a charter, which is similar to state and federal constitutions, but nearly every charter is different, having been originally crafted, adopted, and subsequently revised to reflect local desires for government organization and function. For example, the City of Jacksonville has nineteen members of its City Council (elected on a district basis) whereas the City of Fernandina Beach has five City Commissioners (elected at-large by the entire City).
Leadership Nassau seeks to provide insight to the form, function, and role of government and business in Nassau County, especially for those, as mentioned by County Commissioner Martin, interested in further public service. Both County and City government need residents (typically volunteer) to populate various boards and commissions. These boards and commissions, although often not as highly regarded or visible (but often as important) as the legislative bodies, advise their respective governing bodies. For some members of the boards, it is a local government apprenticeship, often leading to more engagement and involvement.
At the City level, I had developed a smaller scale program similar to Leadership Nassau: a Citizens Academy. The last series of this effort, like so many other things, was interrupted by the onset of the pandemic last March. As we turn the calendar optimistically to a new (election) year, I plan to re-commence the Citizens Academy in late January.
The past format of the Citizens Academy included sessions covering a variety of local government topics. These sessions covered City government history and organization, finance and budgeting, general government department organization and roles, public safety, utilities, and enterprise funds (Airport, Marina, and Golf Course). It is key to note that this effort is related to government, not politics: if interested in politics, the City Commission meets on the first and third Tuesday of each month at City Hall.
Some of the details as part of this renewed effort have yet to be finalized, such as day, time, and location. For previous series of the Academy, I have often varied the time between late afternoon sessions and evening sessions. Each session typically lasts two hours. Participation is limited to between ten and fifteen residents (non-City residents are welcome to participate) to facilitate group discussions. Possible general locations for the sessions are the Airport or the Golf Course, both of which have appropriate facilities. The series will be offered at no cost to participants. As soon as the format and scheduling details are completed, applications for the program will be available on the City’s website.
A new feature under development for the Citizens Academy are “graduate” courses dedicated specifically to other departments, notably Police, Fire, utilities, Airport, and others. Completion of the “undergraduate” Citizens Academy will be a prerequisite for consideration in the “graduate” programs.
I look forward to the return of the Citizens Academy and sharing my experience and passion for local government with residents interested in learning more and perhaps later serving the community. Thank you for your interest.