Civics 101: A Citizens Academy

Gary S. Downing, P.E., Engineering Section Supervisor, Sarasota County Public Works; Speaker, 2005 APWA Congress
Casey Pilon, Neighborhood Education Coordinator, Sarasota County Neighborhoods, Sarasota, Florida

To paint a picture of Sarasota County is to paint a picture of paradise. It is a beautiful coastal community of about 352,000 residents. As in any community, the makeup of its residents runs the socioeconomic gamut; however, Sarasota County residents tend to be affluent and older (about 65% over the age of 55). Citizens are involved and knowledgeable for the most part, except when it comes to an overall understanding of how government functions. They know what they want when it comes to growth management, the arts, the environment, etc., but they aren't quite sure how to get there. Since frustration with bureaucracy creates a negative view toward government, an approach was implemented to minimize the adverse effects.

The Board of County Commissioners wholeheartedly supported the project, having adopted the philosophy of a "kinder, gentler establishment" with new emphasis on goals of public education, outreach, and community partnerships. Staff member Casey Pilon was selected to develop and implement a Citizens Academy.

Step one was to gather information about the good, the bad and the ugly of an academy program. Step two was putting together a team to help develop the program. This included Sarasota County Government's eight functional Business Centers: Administrative Services, Community Services, Development Services, Emergency Services, Environmental Services, Growth Management, Health & Human Services, and Public Works. Although Casey Pilon is the program coordinator and administrator, each Business Center develops its own segment working under her guidance. The goal is a "hands-on" educational program that is fun and interesting.

Sarasota County sponsors two Academies a year, beginning in April and September. The program budget is $3,000 and is funded from the General Fund. The classes are held for ten weeks each Thursday evening from 6:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. and a half-day Saturday bus tour is also available. Class is limited to twenty-five students. Participants submit applications and the excess applications are carried over to the next Academy. Applications request the standard information but also ask for their birthplace, how long they've lived in Sarasota County, their interests and accomplishments, and what they hope to learn from the program. The Academy is promoted by word-of-mouth, a video shown on the County's TV access channel 19, and distribution of applications at all six libraries and in the lobby of the Administration Center. There is no cost to participants to attend.

Staff learned very quickly that snacks were insufficient to hold the students until 9:00 p.m. Dinner is provided and on a typical class night, students arrive 15-20 minutes before class, get something to eat and go to their seats where they continue eating when class begins. Although the weekly sessions are flexible and continuously improving, a general pattern has developed. Each Business Center has maintained the original format. An abbreviated description follows:

Week 1 - "The Big Picture" - held in the County Administration Building. This is a night of orientation. The County Administrator and the Chairman of the Board of County Commissioners greet the class. The speakers for the evening are the constitutional officers: Property Appraiser, Tax Collector, Sheriff, Supervisor of Elections and Clerk of the Court. The officers themselves attend—no substitutes are allowed. It is a unique opportunity for citizens to meet elected officials on a personal level. These officers help participants learn the distinction in elected officials' roles.

Week 2 - "Help!!!" - conducted in a portable classroom at the Fire Training Academy by Emergency Services staff. Speakers include the Fire Chief, Lifeguard Supervisor, and various fire personnel with expertise in different disciplines.

Week 3 - "Our Lands, Our Water: Delivering Today, Planning Tomorrow" - conducted by the Environmental Services unit. Class topics include information about water (supply, resources, costs, etc.), utilities, natural resources, solid waste and Sarasota County's award-winning recycling program. They also tour the water reclamation plant, and low-flow showerheads and tote bags made from recycled coke bottles are given as gifts.

Week 4 - "How Does Your County Grow?" - conducted in the Administration Building Training Room and Commission Chambers. Growth Management staff provides short- and long-range planning overviews; information about Apoxsee, the County's Comprehensive Plan; and Sarasota County's growth management history and current plan. The second half of the class is a mock Planning Commission meeting based on a previously-heard rezone petition. Some members of the class play commissioners, and the rest speak to the rezone issue either as opponents or proponents. Most comment that it's not as easy as it looks.

Week 5 - "How To Build Better Homes" - conducted by Development Services personnel. During the first half, information is presented about the unit, building, planning, land development, etc. The second half consists of a hilarious "play" that the employees wrote, rehearsed and perform in three scenes. The skit provides a bundle of information in a very entertaining format.

Week 6 - "Sarasota's Playground" - conducted in a recreation facility at a mid-County park. Community Services staff begins the evening with a half-hour bonding exercise, which is a sit-down dinner, to give everyone an opportunity to eat and converse with one another. After "dining," speakers present information about the library system, historical resources, parks and its recreation programs, and cooperative extension services. That knowledge is then tested by playing "communopoly" a game modeled after monopoly.

Tour - The class takes a half-day, Saturday morning tour on a County bus from 9:00 a.m. - noon. They are given survival bags, which contain snacks, beverages, and Keep Sarasota Beautiful giveaway plastic sunglasses. As County facilities are passed, interesting facts are related. Most participants are unaware of the vast number of County locations and facilities. Two walking tour destinations (vs. drive-by) are scheduled. The first is an environmental learning center called Florida House. The second stop is the Carlton Water Treatment Facility with adjacent nature preserve. The tour includes all aspects of the water process from pumping to purifying.

Week 7 - "Stay Healthy and Safe" - conducted at the new County Health Facility. Staff presents information on its multitude of programs, such as Teen Smoking, septic tank approval, contagious diseases, Kid Care, mosquito control, and vital statistics. The class also learns about Grants and Aids, social, and veteran services. The format used for this evening is "Wheel of Fortune."

Week 8 - "Roads, Roads and More Roads" - conducted in the BOB facility by Public Works, which goes all out and generally receives the highest ratings overall for their effort. Individual displays at various stations, such as forestry, sign shop, area transit bus, etc. are set up in a large room. The class is split into five groups and rotates among the exhibits where staff explains their function and entertains questions. The entire group then has the opportunity to go outside and operate large equipment like bulldozers and menzi muckers. They can ride up in a bucket truck or sit in an air boat while the engines rage.

Week 9 - "Money and Not So Cheap Talk" - conducted in the Administration Center, third-floor TV studio by Administrative Services. An overview is given of the Business Center as well as a fifteen-minute presentation relative to the operating and capital budgets and their related processes. A "commissioner for a day" activity and budget exercise are part of the evening. About 90% of the class members have e-mail addresses and are generally a computer-savvy group. Public Communications presents an overview of its responsibilities and TV19, the County's public access television channel, as well as explanations as to where to find information on our web page, www.scgov.net.

Week 10 - "Bits and Pieces" - conducted in the EOC (Emergency Operations Center). This evening is left unstructured—the subject matter to be determined by the class. They may request more information on a subject already covered, a presentation on a subject not covered, discuss hot topics, or leave it up to the Coordinator. To date, groups have toured Sarasota's recently restored historic courthouse and the criminal justice building. They have had a presentation by the County Attorney and toured the 911 Call Center (always popular). They are given information on how to get involved with volunteering and advisory boards.

Graduation is scheduled for the next Board meeting after their final class. The Chairman presents the graduates with a Certificate of Completion as the Coordinator tells a short story about each of them. They are also given a 5-10 minute video, edited from footage of their experiences taken each week by a student intern. Graduation takes about 10 minutes.

The Citizens Academy is a wonderful outreach learning opportunity, adaptable to any circumstance in all jurisdictions. The common challenge to everyone developing such a program is to provide information in an interesting and fun manner, and tailor it to the community.

We completed our eleventh academy on June 7, 2005; this now brings the total number of alumni to 265. Casey Pilon is proud to provide additional information about our successful program. She can be reached at (941) 861-5827, or via e-mail at cpilon@scgov.net.

Gary S. Downing, P.E., can be reached at (941) 861-0878 or gdowning@scgov.net.