By Dale Martin
April 29, 2022
The fifth series of the Citizens Academy was completed earlier this month. The Citizens Academy is intended to inform interested residents (City and non-City- no residency requirement for participation) about the history, the organization, and the operations of the City. The series typically lasts for six or seven weekly sessions, each lasting about ninety minutes. The first three series, graciously hosted by the Nassau County Council on Aging), were conducted as planned. The fourth series, though, was interrupted by the onset of the covid pandemic. Some participants of that interrupted series returned for the fifth series, most of which was conducted at the City’s Airport terminal conference room.
I had announced the Citizens Academy in January and was surprised by the level of interest. In only two days, and when combined with the “covid-interrupted” returnees, the class size reached nearly twenty people, more than I usually prefer. I had to begin responding to others interested that the class was full and they would receive preference for the next series to be scheduled in the fall. Although I have yet to formally schedule the fall series (likely to begin in late September/early October to conclude before Thanksgiving), I expect that my limit on participation has already been met.
The key reason that I limit the participation is that the Citizens Academy (which is not my concept, but replicated in some form in hundreds of other communities and agencies, for example, the Nassau County Chamber of Commerce Leadership Nassau program) is that the program is intended to engage in interpersonal dialogue. I want the group to be small, not like an introductory college freshman (is “freshman” still acceptable?) psychology class in a cavernous auditorium (Dr. Beagley’s Psych 101, Alma College, 1981). In every series, it is fascinating to watch the dynamics of the group develop and grow from session to session.
It is for a similar reason that I do not record the sessions to share electronically. My philosophy is that local government is about public and personal engagement. Anyone can easily log on to a variety of electronic devices and or platforms and “engage.” That is not how effective government policies and programs are discussed, evaluated, and implemented. I want the participants to get away from devices and computers and have a real conversation with their fellow residents who (gasp!) often think differently than the self-selected segregated participants on social media sites.
The fifth series started with about twenty participants, but due to external life forces, the number of regularly attending participants dwindled to about a dozen. Most, as mentioned, were demonstrably engaged; a few others were thoughtfully reserved. From my host perspective, in was the most diverse series of all: many of the previous series, perhaps because of the link to and promotion through the Council on Aging, drew participants that were already familiar with each other such as spouses or neighbors. This group did not seem to have that initial familiarity but the level of openness and comfort seemed to grow with each session.
The most engaging sessions, though, were the ones that involved other City staff. Residents typically have little reason to interact with department directors or even less frequent, junior staff. Similarly, department directors have minimal involvement with the general public. It is always a pleasure to showcase the professionalism, experience, and insight of the department directors that I am privileged to lead in this community.
Those directors and junior staff often have somewhat “freer” tongues than do I when it comes to a variety of topics and issues. Many of the staff have worked for the City for many years, longer than many current residents have lived here and definitely longer than many of the City Commissioners have served. Often in the Citizens Academy, a “new” concept is raised- “Have you ever thought about doing ‘X’?” Staff more often than not responds by sharing “war stories” of how the six previous efforts to do ‘X’ faltered for political reasons. For example, Mr. Jeremiah Glisson, who has worked for the City for over twenty years and now leads the City’s Public Works Operations, has files and folders of paperwork and floppy discs describing the need and plans for projects that have yet to come to fruition.
The Police and Fire Departments introduced some of their personnel and exhibited some of their equipment. The Marina and Airport Managers shared their professional experiences and operational insight about their facilities. The staff that operates perhaps the most technically demanding City facility, the wastewater treatment facility, dazzled the participants with their professional knowledge and dedication to their craft.
The Citizens Academy is reinvigorating to me. It reinforces that I am part of a profession committed to serving the general public and the residents of my community. It is fascinating to watch how the participants begin to understand, some for the first time, of how complex and successful your local government, the place that many of you call home, is.
Thank you to those who set aside the time to participate in Series 5. I look forward to Series 6 in the fall.
Enjoy the return of the Shrimp Festival this weekend.