CITY HALL — City Hall wants to strengthen connections with the community and empower up-and-coming civic leaders through a newly-proposed Citizen Academy, a crash course in the nuts and bolts of city government.

The classes, expected to launch in early 2014, will be designed to help residents learn about how local government, community institutions and nonprofits operate and how decisions get made that impact Santa Monica as a whole.

It’s similar to the Citizen Academy run through the Santa Monica Police Department, meant to give an inside look at local law enforcement and how it functions in an attempt to demystify how the department operates.

Between 20 and 25 people will be able to participate in each round of classes, and the total cost — roughly $12,000 — would be born by City Hall’s General Fund.

City officials hope that it will result in residents better able to navigate the halls of government, able to not only be heard on issues important to them, but hold a more nuanced conversation about public policy, said City Manager Rod Gould.

“People get very knowledgeable, passionate and frustrated because they have all these ideas, they have all the energy and don’t know how to get action,” Gould said.

At the same time, the academy would allow city officials a chance to interact with residents in a free-flowing manner to collect ideas and get a better understanding of constituents’ needs.

Over the course of between six and eight sessions, participants could learn about how the planning process works, the details of transportation and parking plans or even the basics of public meeting participation.

Although members of Santa Monica’s most active neighborhood organizations know some of this information already, Gould hopes that exposure to other topics outside of their usual concerns, be that traffic or development, will broaden their perspective on Santa Monica as a whole.

“Everything is interconnected,” he said.

Community leaders like Zina Josephs of the Friends of Sunset Park applauded the academy in concept, but wanted more information on how people would be selected.

Others, like Alin Wall of the Wilshire Montana Neighborhood Coalition, shared that concern and hoped that the classes would be targeted at a younger audience.

“I think generally it’s a great idea,” she said. “I feel it should be aimed at residents under 30 years old in order to get younger people involved in the community.”

Those interested will have the chance to apply in early 2014. Roughly two dozen will be selected by a panel, although the exact composition of that group has not yet been decided, Gould said.

City Hall also wants to draw younger residents into the mix, as well as its more vocal critics.

“We’re hopeful to get people who are not in positions of responsibility or power, or well-known names in the political milieu, people who are considering getting more involved, and are involved at a lower level,” Gould said.

That includes younger people who have only “dabbled” up until now, he said.

Citizen academies have taken off throughout the country in recent years to boost civic understanding of and participation in local government.

The Institute for Local Government, the research and education affiliate of the California State Association of Counties and the League of California Cities, found nearly 100 academies organized through city managers’ offices, police departments or other ends of city government.

They’ve been recognized as a way to create a new civic leadership pool and create connections with hard-to-reach communities.

The model surfaced in the late 1990s, and evolved from academies run through police departments as a way to humanize officers in the eyes of residents, wrote Adam Scott Marcus in a 2007 paper “Local Government Citizen Academies: Is Knowledge Power?”

They are seen as a way to not only inform citizens, but also planners who have an academic knowledge of how things work, but sometimes lack what Marcus refers to as “tacit” knowledge held by people who experience conditions on the ground daily.

“[B]oth technical and tacit forms of knowledge are valid and planners must figure out how to utilize them both,” he wrote.

 

ashley@smdp.com

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