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New Haven Citizens' Academy focuses on city operations

Tuesday, January 29, 2013 - 6:08 am

New Haven's popular and very successful Citizens' Academy opened its sixth session Monday evening with 22 attendees who came to delve into the inner workings of their city government. They'll be attending nine weekly sessions that will not only bring representatives of every city department before them, but also include facility tours of the Police, Fire, EMS, Utility and Engineering departments.

Mayor Terry McDonald welcomed the participants and pointed out that the Academy's main purpose is to give the community a better understanding of how city government operates.

“We want them to learn just why it takes so much time and money to build or repair roads and streets and to actually see the facilities and equipment the city utilizes to provide the various services. People who attended past sessions have literally been shocked to find out that our small community maintains nearly 72 miles of streets and roads.

“Students will learn that city projects move at different paces depending on where the funding is coming from, how much paperwork is required, what hoops have to be jumped through and the number of agencies that must be dealt with. Locally funded parts of the downtown revitalization a few years back were done in one season, while projects funded by the federal government stretched over two seasons and went over budget.”

“This program is also a great way for us to introduce the importance of volunteers in the workings of our city. In fact,” he said, “without volunteers it would be difficult for us to maintain our present high level of service, particularly in the Police, Fire and EMS Departments. There's no way we could afford to employ enough full-time officers to handle the job.”

Executive assistant to the Mayor, Deb-Anne Smith, developed the curriculum and volunteer coordinator, Doug Geller, facilitates the sessions. The first one was held in the spring of 2010 followed by one in the fall. Two were conducted the following year and one in 1012.

According to Smith, the Academy grew out of training sessions conducted by the High Performance Government Network in 2009. In an effort to come up with more efficient ways to operate the city, it was determined that a good way to keep the public informed about city government was to hold public information sessions. So, the Academy was born. “Some cities have a similar program highlighting their Police or Fire Departments, but we took it a step further by designing New Haven's to showcase all departments. It's free, but residents must still apply. To keep the program manageable for questions and facility tours, the size of the group is limited to 40. Participants who complete the course with perfect attendance will receive their certification at a City Council meeting,” she added.

The program has done a good job of encouraging volunteerism through its community-based partnerships. Police, Fire, EMS and Parks Departments have benefitted greatly from the additional help. Several Academy graduates have gone on to serve on city boards of committees. City Councilwoman Sarah DiGangi was a 2010 grad, Bruce Heine, a 2011 grad, serves on the Plan Commission, and Craig Dellinger, also a 2011 grad, is a councilman. Other volunteers pitch in for special events like annual spring clean-up, downtown Christmas event, State-wide Indy 500 activity and Mayor's ride.

Three former graduates who now serve in the city government addressed the session last night. “When I read about the Academy in 2010,” says second term Councilwoman DiGangi, “I thought it would be fun. I enjoy learning and I really didn't know much about city government. The information helped me understand what I was getting for my tax dollar. I knew there was a mayor and departments heads, but to actually meet them, receive business cards and an invitation to call with any problems was very refreshing. At the end of the session we all filled out evaluation forms that included a section for our various skill sets. Some time later the volunteer coordinator contacted me and urged me to consider running for a seat on the City Council.”

City Councilman Craig Dellinger, who attended the initial session, actually returned to a later class with DiGangi in order to participate in the facility tours. “They weren't part of the first session,” he said. “I was struck by the enthusiasm of the city employees, their efficiency and their dedication to service. They all seemed to enjoy working for the city of New Haven and are proud of their departments.”

Bruce Heine, 2011 Academy grad, was appointed to the Plan Commission earlier this month. “I've lived in New Haven seven years and had been thinking about getting involved in the community when I heard about the Academy. I was really impressed with the program, and surprised when Doug Geller contacted me about the possibility of being on the Plan Commission. I'm just finding my way around the zoning regulations, but am really enjoying the work and have the Academy to thank.”

As Geller says, “the majority of the volunteers are retirees who are eager to help out where they can. Many get involved in the Parks activities. One woman with billing experience from Parkview jumped in to set up workable billing procedures for EMS and then trained others to continue the work. My job, besides running the sessions, is to contact grads that have indicated an interest in volunteering and keep everyone up to date on what's going on and what the city's needs might be at the moment. The bottom line is to give participants a better understanding of city government, provide a forum for their questions and hopefully give them some solid ideas on how they can serve their community.”