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Salisbury City Council considers creation of citizen academy

SALISBURY — A third of the people who have participated in the town of Cary’s “School of Government” have gone on to serve on boards, commissions or task forces for the town.
Salisbury City Council heard a presentation this morning from Lana Hygh, assistant to the town manager in Cary, about Cary’s program for citizens.
Council, on the last day of its annual goal-setting retreat, is considering the possibility of starting a “citizen academy” for Salisbury.
Cary’s School of Government was created in 2003 and first went by the description as a “neighborhood college.” Over 10 years, it has held nine classes with 186 graduates.
Hygh said those completing the town-sponsored and town-delivered course are more apt to serve later on boards and commissions and be the kind of residents who are active, plugged in and knowledgeable about when public input is most valuable in the local government process.
Participants meet for eight sessions. Most of the classes, which are free, are held 6-9 p.m. on Wednesday nights, but a couple of the sessions are on weekends so students can see public safety and public service demonstrations.
Town board members often attend the first and last classes, which end with a certificate presentation and graduation.
The School of Government touches on most aspects of a city’s operation, concentrating on the areas of infrastructure, community planning, financial condition and municipal services.
The students end up taking field trips to places such as water and wastewater treatment plants. They visit fire training exercises in which they see Cary firefighters tackle single-story and multi-story fires, or watch police demonstrations involving SWAT and K-9 teams and practices at a firing range.
They also might learn, for example, how street signs are made or traffic signals repaired.
Several other cities also have initiated citizen academies, such as Gastonia and Concord.
“One thing we’ve heard over and over — feed them dinner,” Salisbury City Clerk Myra Heard said.
Hygh said lessons Cary learned were to start small, allow time for questions and choose presenters carefully, making sure their enthusiasm for their jobs carries over into their presentations.
Zack Kyle, head of human resources for Salisbury, said a citizen academy could be a tool to create more model citizens who become the leaders in a community.
Heard, part of the team researching the idea, said things for council to consider in establishing a citizen academy would be fees and costs, class size, enrollment and selection, topics of discussion, recruitment and advertisement.
Her team has recommended that a Salisbury citizen academy be free to the participants. She estimated the costs associated with materials, food and graduation between $4,000 and $6,000.
Heard listed some of the reasons why the city might consider the commitment to a citizen academy:
• It could serve as a public relations tool by leading to citizens who are informed, engaged and serve as informal ambassadors for Salisbury.
• Graduates in other cities often become more involved in government activities and go on to serve on boards and commissions.
• It helps with transparency — “Relationships of trust are formed between government staff and citizens,” Heard said.
• A city gains valuable feedback from citizens.
Councilman Brian Miller asked Hygh whether the fact that Cary’s school was free hurt attendance. Over the years, she said, it has not. Participants are required to attend six of the eight sessions to graduate, and some people have come back the next year to make up a class so they could earn their certificates.
Hygh said among the Cary academy students have been seven couples, family members spanning generations and friends who tell friends.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263.

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