Ann Arbor Citizens Academy: An insider's look into local government

Photo: City of Ann Arbor
Photo: City of Ann Arbor

ANN ARBOR – The city of Ann Arbor is now taking applications for the Ann Arbor Citizens Academy, its newest initiative to involve citizens in the everyday operations of government, policy and decision making, and city services.

The deadline for applying is March 2, 2018, by 5 p.m.

We sat down with Kirk Westphal, Ann Arbor Ward 2 City Council member and longtime advocate of the Ann Arbor Citizens Academy, who told us the idea sprang from successes of other similar initiatives across the country.

He first heard of a citizens academy in Midland, Michigan, and after doing some research, found that at least 100 other cities in the U.S. had established a type of citizens academy.


Ann Arbor Ward 2 City Council member Kirk Westphal (Photo: kirkforcouncil.org)

"I spoke with a couple of other communities who have had them who said that they really saw an uptick in the number of people feeling enthusiastic about volunteering for city service, or whether it’s joining a commission or running for city council," he said. "Some city council candidates in other cities will put ‘Graduate of the Emerging Leaders Academy’, for example, (on their CV). It seems like it has been successful in other communities and I thought, what a perfect place to try it."

Another driving force behind the citizens academy is City Administrator Howard Lazarus.

"I think the idea landed in fertile ground, if you will, with Mr. Lazarus, because he had been involved with the citizens academy that Austin, Texas, has," Westphal explained.

On a personal note, he has felt a need for the establishment of a direct line between Ann Arbor citizens and government for a several years now.

"Something that struck me -- and I know other people have had this experience as well -- is that you hear a lot of things when you’re knocking on thousands of strangers' doors, but the ones who stood out are the folks who would say, 'I’ve always meant to get involved with the city and help my community, I just don’t know how to go about it,'" Westphal said.

"Following that, we’ve been doing a much better job advertising and listing open positions for boards and commissions, but even then we still have folks who feel not as equipped as they’d like to be to contribute. The idea is that this gives folks the firsthand knowledge and context for helping the city solve problems, and I think the more information to the public, the better."

Westphal says they have already exceeded the class total of 25 participants in applications, and with another three weeks to go before applications close, there may be a need to open more than one class this year, but these are details that still need to be worked out.

One interesting aspect of the application is an optional photo submission challenge.

"This is the fun part of the application process, City staff hopes the Photo Challenge will get applicants out exploring the City," it reads. "It is easy as taking a photo of yourself with each of the people or places listed below."  

  • Your favorite bridge in the city
  • Your favorite city park 
  • A rain garden in the city
  • A city police officer or firefighter
  • A location used to hold public meetings by the city
  • The outside of your polling place or the city's oldest continuously operating polling place

"All the credit for the application process and the structure goes to Mr. Lazarus and Mr. Beattie in the clerk’s office," Westphal said. "It sounds like a really fun way to get bonus points for your application and get to know parts of the city you haven’t seen before."

So, what can accepted members to the citizens academy expect?

"It seems similar to the whirlwind orientation that new council members get when they’re elected. Except this is every week for six weeks; we get ours packed into a couple of days," Westphal said. "So this will be a really interesting behind-the-scenes look at what makes the city tick, from our budget to roads to pipes to parks to land use; really the whole gamut.

"I’ve been assured this is not going to be a lecture-heavy affair, that it will be engaging and interactive, so I’m hopeful that word will spread that this is a great way to get to know your city and how to make an impact. Given the number of applicants it seems like this should be a sustainable program."

"During a series of six sessions, participants will connect with City staff and elected officials in order to discover what goes into both long term planning and day-to-day operations throughout Ann Arbor. City staff hopes participants will be motived to play a more active role in shaping the future of Ann Arbor, after participating in A2CA tours, presentations, and interactive activities designed to deepen the understanding of governmental functions and services." - City of Ann Arbor

According to Westphal, city staff -- acting as the admission committee -- are looking for citizens who will be in it for the duration and demonstrate enthusiasm for learning.

Interested in taking part? Apply here.

Applicants will receive an answer on March 9, 2018.

What are your thoughts on the Ann Arbor Citizens Academy? Let us know in the comments below.



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