February 8, 2019 12:00 p.m.
Next week will conclude my inaugural Government Academy effort. This six-week series of two-hour sessions was sponsored by the Nassau County Council on Aging. The intent of the Academy was to introduce and discuss a variety of municipal government subjects to the fifteen participants. The number of participants was deliberately limited to encourage small-group interaction.
The “guinea pigs” of this first effort were a mixed group of both City and County residents. Although the Council on Aging programs are, in fact, open to the general public including non-senior citizens, the Academy participants were overwhelmingly senior citizens. The afternoon timing of the sessions (3:00 PM-5:00 PM) was likely a significant contributing factor for that aspect of participation.
I found the group to be very engaging. Some members were quietly contemplative while others were more vocally interactive. A key feature of the program is that it is intended to discuss local government, not local politics. Of course we veered occasionally into a few current topics before the City Commission or issues reported by the local media, but all-in-all, we stayed on task.
Each session focused upon a dedicated subject: organization, finance, operations, public safety, utilities, and (the final session next week) enterprise funds (the Airport, the Marina, and the Golf Course). For some of the sessions, I enlisted the assistance of other City staff in order to provide a “ground-level” perspective to the participants rather than relying solely on my comments.
The organization session discussion heavily involved the relationship, both formal and informal, between the City and the County. The raggedness and confusion of the City’s boundaries provoked many questions- how was the City created, what contributed to the irregular expansion of the boundaries, should the boundaries be adjusted?
The finance session did obviously include discussions regarding the City’s budget, but a large amount of time (intentionally) was devoted to the effort of the City’s budget on individual property owners- the information on tax bills, the difference of the types of values on a tax bill and how those values are generated, and how the wildly differing values within the community impact City fiscal operations. I provided each participant a copy of their own tax bills for comparative purposes.
The operations session provided an overview of the roles and responsibilities of each department. The discussion was somewhat open and wide-ranging, and, to be honest, I need to more thoroughly develop what and how to present during this session. The questions and comments tended to focus on the “horizontal” configuration of City government rather than a “vertical” orientation with layers of additional managers.
The public safety session, as expected, was the most engaging session- mainly because CPT David Bishop of the Police Department and LT Bill Baughn of the Fire Department have better stories and equipment than me. CPT Bishop and LT Baughn offered the rare perspective of lifelong island residents and City employees. CPT Bishop’s “show-and-tell” of both his obsolete and current equipment was very well-received. Both Police and Fire vehicles were on-site and a detailed explanation of the technology and tools included were provided to participants.
This week’s session took the participants to the City’s wastewater plant. As with nearly all residents, very few have had the opportunity to go “behind-the-scenes” and hear from Mr. John Mandrick, Utilities Director, how the sanitary sewer system operates. I’m not saying that the participants enjoyed the sights and smells, but they learned a lot from Mr. Mandrick and Mr. Gabriel Davis, who leads the City’s wasterwater operations effort.
Following next week’s concluding session about the Marina, Airport, and Golf Course, I will solicit feedback from the participants about the highs and lows of the sessions- what did they enjoy, what did I miss, how can it be made better for the next group? I do plan to continue this effort, likely to begin again in April. While this again will be another afternoon series, I do plan to eventually schedule evening sessions to be available for those that cannot participate during the day. Details about future sessions will be provided by the Council on Aging later.
According to the Florida League of Cities, about fifty cities in the state provide similar academies. I am pleased that we can now be included in that group in an effort to promote local government awareness. I’d like to thank the Council on Aging for this opportunity, as well as the additional City staff that I dragged into this program. Most of all, I’d like to thank the participants who simply wanted to learn more about local government. I look forward to the next series.