As a recent graduate of Homer’s first Citizens Academy I herewith present my report:
Ten to 12 citizens participated in the six weekly presentations along with several city staff, councilwoman Barbara Howard (who initially proposed the academy), and the city manager, Walt Wrede. A minimum of two and a half hours each week were dedicated to a specific department with the presentation made by that department’s head.
Typically, a classroom presentation came first, during which a basic meal from local vendors was provided (my favorite was the outstanding clam chowder provided for the Port and Harbor night), followed by a field trip to tour their facility.
My overall impression is that operating the city infrastructure is a more involved and demanding process than I had expected, even considering my previous understanding of city functions. Apparently there is no broad-based cheap alternative to providing basic city services.
Yes, it’s true that Homer overbuilt water and sewer capacity anticipating continual significant growth, but all departments are apparently struggling with meeting the demands placed upon them by the citizens and, equally important, complying with state and federal rules and regulations. Clearly, proper city job performance requires educated, trained, and motivated personnel, and I admit to being very favorably impressed by the high caliber and dedication of many city employees.
There was, however, no discussion about employee pay and benefits, so I’m not prepared to state unequivocally that some fat doesn’t exist in compensation provided.
During the presentation the attitude and demeanor of each department head was very open and forthright, accepting and responding to all questions. I didn’t detect any resentment or unwarranted evasion to any question, legitimate or otherwise. For the most part I believe that that sense of openness reflected their general sense of propriety as well as reflecting the will of the city manager, Mr. Wrede. Of course, this doesn’t mean that henceforth your individual efforts to interact with city government won’t seem perverse and frustrating. It is, after all, a bureaucracy, dedicated to performing a specific function and doesn’t necessarily guarantee it’ll play well with individual citizens, or, for that matter, other city departments.
So, was it worth it? When staff preparation time is factored in, I expect that the academy will cost — this first time, anyway — significantly more than the allotted $4,000. And, of course, my seemingly free supper of delicious clam chowder was paid for by you, the taxpayer. But, in my opinion, it was well worth the expense if several of the citizen participants should be motivated to bring their newfound knowledge and understanding of city operations to bear by rendering enlightened decisions while serving on city commissions, task forces or advisory boards.
Otherwise, the benefit is more subtle: Less tendency to throw obstructing stones into the path of proposed city policies, and more support for basic infrastructure needs just to keep the city’s head above water.
Simply put, the academy made it evident that you get what you pay for regarding required infrastructure such as roads, water and sewer, library, and port and harbor, as well as basic services demanded, as in police, fire protection, land-use planning and administration.