Citizens hit the books to learn about local government
Class is in session for a group of civic-minded residents, as the Black Mountain Citizens Academy returns for its second year.
The seven-week course, designed to educate participants on the role and function of local government, got underway in the boardroom inside Town Hall on Aug. 28, as 13 students were greeted by the town’s administration department.
Angela Reece, the town clerk and assistant to the town manager for Black Mountain, launched the academy last year after learning about similar classes while attending training at the UNC Chapel Hill School of Government. The series, which features presentations from each of the municipality’s department heads, is intended to teach citizens how to navigate the bureaucracy of their local government.
Fifteen people were recognized for completing the course last November and three alumni currently serve on various town boards and commissions. Three of those participants spoke to this year’s group during its first meeting.
“Last year’s class was a great group,” Reece said. “They came in ready to learn and asked a lot of questions. It was very rewarding to see them learn and form bonds from that experience. I was thrilled to be able to do it again.”
The inaugural Citizens Academy attracted an “overwhelming number of applicants,” according to Reece, and some who were turned away were invited to attend this year’s class.
The roster features participants from a wide variety of backgrounds.
“Some are retired and looking for opportunities to be more involved with their local government,” Reece said. “We have ex-engineers and people with experience at the planning level in places they’ve lived in the past, but all of them are hoping this class will be a stepping stone for them to become more active in their government.”
Doug Brock moved to Black Mountain in 1984 and was intrigued by the opportunity provided by the Citizen Academy.
“I need more education on the processes and how a town functions,” he said. “I’ve been here for 35 years and I’ve gained some perspective over the years as a resident and someone who has an interest in real estate matters. I realized I didn’t understand as much as I could about the governmental process.”
Brock’s experience with municipal government often led to more questions.
“You know our civics lessons stop at some point in our education,” he said. “Yet, I’ve had enough exposure to the process to figure out that I need to know more.”
The experience will serve as an introduction to the day-to-day operations of municipal governments for Black Mountain Library branch manager Melisa Pressley.
“I’m a complete novice,” she said. “I’ve come to realize that this is the level where change really happens. This is where we can really make a difference and this is how I can be involved.”
Pressley worked at the Enka-Candler Library for 15 years before stepping into her current role in January of 2016. She moved to Black Mountain in 2018.
“I’d already heard wonderful things about the community here before I was hired for this position,” she said. “It’s always been my goal to live in the community and I’m fortunate to live in such a wonderful place.”
The Citizens Academy presents Pressley with a unique opportunity to grow personally and professionally.
“I have two goals coming into this class,” she said. “We field so many questions from the community and from tourists who come through Black Mountain at the library, and this will help me know more about where to direct them and who they can talk to. But, personally, I want to be an active participant in my local government and a good citizen and this gives me a chance to make those connections.”
Each class focuses on one or two of the seven departments within the town. An introduction was held two weeks prior to the first full session, which provided an overview of the administration department. The sessions are catered by area restaurants and each participant receives a binder with additional information about the topics covered.
The board of aldermen approved $2,500 to support the Citizens Academy in the 2019-20 budget.
Town Manager Josh Harrold opened the class by explaining the council-manager system of government employed by Black Mountain. He then broke down the roles of the elected officials and employees.
Harrold continued his presentation by briefly examining the history of the town before fielding questions from the group.
Reece, like Harrold, provided background information about her professional career before describing her role as the town clerk.
“I am the keeper of the gate,” she said. “I wear many hats, but it all starts with public records.”
Reece detailed the state’s public records policy and listed examples of items that qualified. She then explained the public record request process before moving on to discuss laws regarding open meetings.
Assistant town manager and finance director Dean Luebbe reviewed the budget process and focused on the responsibilities of the town’s finance department.
The academy will reconvene Sept. 11, for a presentation from the planning and development department before closing out the month with a session focusing on public services, which oversees water, and the recreation and parks department.
October will feature two sessions that were favorites of the 2018 participants, according to Reece.
“The police and fire departments were really hands-on last year,” she said. “Everybody really enjoyed those classes and they learned so much. I learned some things I didn’t know from those presentations last year.”
Pressley plans to use the knowledge she takes away from the course to serve the community.
“I’d like to give my time by serving on a board or commission, and this class will give me a better understanding of what to expect,” she said. “It’s really an innovative idea, because it's my understanding that this is not something offered by a lot of municipalities.”
Brock hopes to share the lessons he takes away from the academy, which concludes Friday, Nov. 8, with an informal graduation ceremony.
"I don't have aspirations for any political position, but I do aspire to be a resource for people in the community," he said. "That's my commitment to being part of a democracy, and I think this class will allow me to be a more valuable resource."