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Citizen Academy welcomes first graduates

Jun 21, 2017 12:03PM ● Published by Kelly Cannon

Graduates of the Sandy City Citizen Academy show their certificates at the Sandy City Hall Council Chambers on May 16. (Nicole Martin/Sandy City)

By Doug Radunich |doug.r@mycityjournals.com

After experiencing an informative course in community government, 20 Sandy residents became graduates of the innaugural Sandy City Citizen Academy on May 16.

The free nine-week course, held Wednesday evenings from March 22 to May 16, was designed for adult residents of Sandy to gain a better understanding of how city government works. Classes took place at various Sandy locations and consisted of presentations from city departments, including the the mayor’s office, council and justice court, police department, finance and information technology/economic development/redevelopment agency, Sandy Boys and Girls Club, public utilities department, public works department and fire department.

Sandy City Councilman Steve Fairbanks said the idea for a local citizen academy came about last year. Both Fairbanks and Sandy City Council Office Manager Pam Lehman helped get it off the ground and running.

“We took the idea to the council, got approval and moved forward with it, but we didn’t know that when we had the idea, South Jordan had already been doing it for years,” Fairbanks said. “We found out after the proposed idea, so they were a major benefit to us. Pam went to meetings to get an idea of what to do, and she put a curriculum together. Participants learned about facilities and functions, and asked various questions so they could get an understanding of how we do things and why we do them.”

Course attendees also experienced a tour of Sandy’s historic district, and later learned about the community development, planning engineering, building, code enforcement and parks and recreation departments. As a reward for their dedication and newfound knowledge, the graduates were presented with certificates of course completion at the Sandy City Hall Council Chambers.

Fairbanks said he was motivated by two key factors when he helped put the program together. One included the recent nationwide political atmosphere — which he said made people more aware and critical of government — while the other was lack of knowledge in local city government.

“People didn’t know the difference between municipal and federal government and didn’t know the role in either,” Fairbanks said. “People had also wanted to run for office, but had never been involved with the city services and didn’t know how the city operated. People have to find out how government functions first. If we can get people better educated, then they can run for office from a knowledgeable standpoint.”

For its first year, Fairbanks said the program consisted of adults from all backgrounds, including men and women, college students to retirees, couples, and all others who were curious. He said all who were 18 or older were invited to attend, and provided a free dinner before each class.

“People would ask questions until 9 p.m. at night sometimes, and beforehand they were able to have a meal from a different restaurant in Sandy,” Fairbanks said. “This was so they could become more aware of their city’s restaurant properties and know more about what’s here in town. We also took a survey of the citizens who attended, and the feedback has all been very positive. They all indicated they were glad for the opportunity to understand how their city works, and it changed their feelings for government.”

Fairbanks said attendees had different motivations for coming out, with several expressing an interest in a political future by the end of the course.

“Two said they would run for office, and a third said after he had lived here for a while, he would want to run,” Fairbanks said. “A high percentage said they would want to volunteer on committee boards, such as the trails committee and transportation committee. There are a lot of committees that deal with different aspects of the city, and they become the sounding board for us.”

One of the city academy’s eager graduates was 36-year-old Zach Robinson, who has lived in Sandy with his wife and children for nearly eight years. Robinson said he signed up to get a “front row seat” on how city government functions and operates, as well as learn more about Sandy City’s growth.

“As citizens, we don’t always know what is taking place around us, so this course was a way to better introduce city services to all of us,” he said. “I also grew up on the south side of Sandy, so I was curious about the growth and smart development that has happened since. We’ve had the Real Salt Lake soccer stadium built here, and we’re seeing more and more businesses want to come here to operate. We have also had an increasing population, and are well developed as far as housing goes.”

Robinson said the community development presentations helped him learn more about the growth, including where it’s happening in Sandy, what is being built, and how a growing population affects the city.

“Learning about traffic patterns, including how the city is impacted by it and trying to fix those traffic problems, was definitely interesting,” he said. “I could have listened to that traffic engineer for three hours straight.”

Robinson said other favorite presentations were on the public works and parks and recreation departments. According to a survey conducted afterward, other participants most enjoyed the police department presentation and the Sandy Boys and Girls Club/Historic Sandy tour/Sandy Museum tour.

“Parks and recreation was fun for me, since I have girls in recreational sports and I use the trail system for running and exercise,” he said. “Parks and rec is probably the department that me and my family utilize the most.”

Robinson also encouraged his wife to participate in the Citizen Academy next year. He added it was important for all Sandy residents, both long time and new, to learn more about how their city government operates.

“When I worked for the city as a firefighter and paramedic for 10 years, I thought I knew everything,” Robinson said. “But then I got into this course and realized I didn’t. I also want other people to have the chance to learn through this course.”

With the program proven to be successful, Fairbanks said the next course will likely begin in March of next year, with a limit of about 20 attendees. He said application times will likely be announced sometime in early 2018.

“Applications are online for anyone who wants to attend the academy, and it’s on a first-come, first-serve basis,” Fairbanks said.

Fairbanks said there is also the possibility of a Saturday session, which could run in a four- to five-week format.

“I’d like to make a report to the council on the success of the thing, and get them to buy into doing it,” he said. “Each week they could meet and have an opportunity to ask various questions, so they could understand how we do things and why we do what we do. I’m pretty excited with how the recent course turned out, and we accomplished everything we hoped it would. It’s beneficial to the community and we look forward to the next one.”

Sandy City Mayor Tom Dolan also expressed appreciation for the program, and reiterated his support to make this opportunity available for other interested citizens in the future.

“Our inaugural Citizens Academy was a clear success and speaks to our commitment to educate, engage with and encourage feedback from our residents,” he said. “The consistent message we heard from attendees was appreciation for the increased understanding in the services rendered on their behalf.”

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