Philomath Citizens’ Academy going virtual this time around

Day-to-day life often creates challenges for small-town residents to get involved in the community. City government can seem intimidating at times with discussions on things like SDCs and zoning changes.

What: Citizens’ Academy
Where: Virtual
When: Jan. 27-March 17
with sessions each Wednesday
from 6-8 p.m.
Register: Click here

Some residents have an interest in giving back to the community by volunteering for a committee. Then there are questions: What exactly does the tree board do… why does the City Council go into an executive session … how do you make a public records request … is the fire department connected to city government in some way?

Local residents can find answers to those types of questions and become comfortable with city government through participation in the Philomath Citizens’ Academy.

City Manager Chris Workman said the overall goal of the academy is to educate. What’s one of the first things he tells participants?

“You can be a resident of a city where you just live there and you come home from work and you live in the city,” he said. “Or, you can be a citizen of the city — the goal of the Citizens’ Academy is to help turn residents into citizens.”

And Workman said he’s not talking about making everybody into a committee volunteer.

“Even if they’re not more actively engaged … they’re at least more informed and more involved — whether it be an increase in voting or more awareness of what the school district is going to be talking about on their agenda or what the City Council is looking at on their agendas. Just to go from just living in Philomath to being a citizen of Philomath. That’s really the overall goal.”

Participants that do develop an interest in serving on a committee or volunteering in some way, Workman said, is a bonus.

The city’s Citizens’ Academy launches on Jan. 27 with plans for eight weeks of programs that will run until March 17. The sessions go from 6-8 p.m. on Wednesday nights during those weeks.

The city wanted to keep the momentum going after a track record of success from the first three academies.

“I think it’s doing what we hoped it would do, which was to educate citizens and give them an opportunity to learn about places where they can serve and things they can do to help out in the community,” Workman said. “With the success rate alone in the past, the council was really favorable about trying to make it happen this year.”

The eight sessions include: Introduction to Local Government, City Budget and Finances, City Infrastructure, Community Development and Urban Renewal, Police and Municipal Court, Fire and Emergency Medical Services, Philomath Library and School District and Community Service Organizations.

“Those haven’t changed — I think each year, the topics for each session change a little bit and they adapt based on the feedback that we get during the meetings,” Workman said. “So I think the individual sessions change a little bit each year but the overall subject matter’s going to be the same.”

The city had originally planned to offer the Citizens’ Academy in the fall like past years, but chose to wait to see if pandemic restrictions would loosen up to the point where in-person meetings could occur. Another thought was that if an online academy was to be offered, perhaps more people would be comfortable in the virtual environment.

“We’d love to do it in person because I think you gain a lot from that in-person contact with folks and being able to answer questions and all of that in person,” Workman said.

The “field trip” component of the academy will be missing, although Workman said to not be surprised, for example, if participants get a tour of the local fire station from the vantage point of a GoPro camera.

“Fortunately, I think post people have gotten more comfortable with using Zoom and the other conference platforms now,” Workman said. “At least anybody who’s in the academy is going to have to have some level of comfort there already. … If it’s the first time or first couple of times you’re using Zoom, it’s maybe a little intimidating but once you get used to it, I think you’ll open up to it a little bit.”

Workman said the situation has created thoughts on utilizing the digital version of the academy for use in other ways. For example, recording portions of the sessions to be posted on the city’s website that anyone could watch on demand.

The city opened up registration for the citizens academy last week. No registrations had come in yet as of Dec. 31, but Workman’s taken a few phone calls from people expressing an interest.

Workman said the academy will be offered regardless of how many people sign up.

Participants that attend most of the sessions receive a certificate of completion.

“Last year was our largest ‘graduating class,’ if you will,” Workman said. “We had really good numbers last year, a really good group that came through, so we’ll see if we can out-do that.”

Workman said he wouldn’t be surprised if more people than ever sign up.

“I think with any new venture, it takes a few years to get legs underneath it,” he said. “I would expect that the numbers would continue to grow as the interest grows. … The word spreads and the feedback has been very positive so that’s a good thing.”