Town takes residents to school with Citizen Academy
Black Mountain, like many other municipalities across the country, has long relied on informed citizens to guide it into the future. Now a fall class will give residents a chance to learn more about how the town operates.
The Black Mountain Citizen Academy will be an eight-week interactive program that offers 20 residents a unique insight into the way the local government functions, according to town clerk Angela Reece. Reece developed the program after attending the UNC Chapel Hill School of Government.
At the UNC school, which encourages citizen academies, "we had blocks of instruction on the importance of them and how they help governments provide meaningful services to their citizens,” said Reece, who joined the town’s administration department in 2015. “These kinds of courses help teach citizens how to navigate through the bureaucracy.”
Reece has been working in state and local government for 15 years, starting as a dispatcher in the Haywood County Sheriff’s Department. “I learned a lot about how to deal with people who are upset and in need,” she said. She then went to work for the state as a probation and parole officer where, she said, she learned “the importance of making sure everyone’s voice is heard.”
“I love public service, I love to see people represented equally and fairly,” she said. “I view my role now as town clerk as the conduit that citizens can use to get to elected officials.”
Reece designed the free eight-week program, which starts Thursday, Sept. 13 with an overview of town government. To sign up, Black Mountain residents can download an application at townofblackmountain.org and submit it before the Monday, July 30 deadline.
“We’ll meet every Thursday, and a free meal will be provided since the classes will be starting when a lot of people are just getting off work," Reece said. "We'll meet in the boardroom at 5:30 p.m. and I have it structured where the meal is first, so if people run a little late it won't interrupt the class time."
Each session will feature a presentation about one of the town's departments from the staff who oversee them.
Jamey Matthews, a town employee for more than a decade, has been the director of the public services department for nearly six years.
"I've got several different departments under me," said Matthews, who will present in week six of the academy. "Parks maintenance, street maintenance and water are all under public services."
Matthews plans to talk about how town agencies interact with outside entities to provide services.
"For example, we have to remain in state compliance with our water system to provide drinking water," he said. "On the street side of things, I will try to talk about how funding works and where it comes from."
The citizen academy will give participants an understanding of how Matthews' department operates.
"We handle everything from keeping the town's restrooms sanitized to caring for the roads to tree removal," he said. "There was a time when the town contracted out more work, but we try to do as much as we can now in-house."
Questions will be encouraged, according to Reece. "It will be very interactive," she said. "I'll hand out materials, including a notebook that will have helpful information on procedures and how the town handles different things."
Protecting the health, safety and welfare of citizen by developing plans and regulations that guide land use is what the planning and development department is tasked with. The director of the department, Jessica Trotman, will talk about the role planning and development plays on week three of the academy.
"Our department is diverse and serves a lot of purposes, and we work directly with the citizens," said Trotman, who joined the staff in 2017. "We also deal with all matters of land use, including transportation planning, watershed management and things like that."
Trotman's department includes the town's building inspector, zoning administrator and permit clerk, all of whom keep busy with a steady flow of traffic in the office, she said.
"Land use law is complicated and convoluted and we don't expect everyone who walks into our office to be well-versed in N.C. general statute," she said. "But we are, so we're able to provide a lot of information about our ordinances and how they apply to their property."
The session Trotman will lead will provide a window into how the town arrives at those decisions, she said.
"Land use isn't arbitrary," she said. "When people come in, they generally have a discrete question and are looking for a simple 'yes' or 'no.' But when they hear 'no,' people often feel like we're just not being cooperative."
The consideration behind those decisions will be among the topics Trotman discusses during her class. "I want to make it interesting and not as dry as it would be if you had to go to a college course about it," she said.
Learning the role that the town plays in the lives of its residents will help open lines of communication between the public and staff, Reece said.
"If people knew what we can and can't do for them, I really think it could change people's views of local government," she said. "When I came into local government I had no idea about the types of services it provides, like most people."
As participants in the academy learn specific services the town provides, they will discover the importance of citizen participation, Reece believes.
"I feel that local government is the most important part of government," she said. "It's definitely the most accessible part because you can come here and talk to your local elected officials. There is a lot to be said for grassroots movements, but this is where they begin."
For more information on the Black Mountain Citizen Academy, visit townofblackmountain.org.