Each year following the conclusion of the annual Philomath Citizens Academy, City Manager Chris Workman invites participants to attend a council meeting to receive certificates of completion. Local leaders look on and applaud the accomplishment while a photographer captures smiling faces.
The celebratory moment serves as an example of a city-organized event that reaches out to its residents but as Workman will tell you, the eight-week series features the full Philomath experience. In other words, it’s not limited to city government and includes the school, fire department, library and volunteer organizations to provide a well-rounded view of what the community offers.
“I think the one thing that may be a little bit different with ours is we collaborate with all of the different organizations in town so that everybody gets a wider perspective of what’s going on in the community,” he said.
The latest Philomath Citizens Academy is now accepting registrations through Sept. 8. The sessions will run 6-8 p.m. each Wednesday from Sept. 13-Nov. 1 and are open to all ages.
“One of my favorite meetings is the very last week, the last session that we do, when we invite all of the nonprofit agencies and the service clubs,” Workman said. “We give them all a chance to give a 5- or 10-minute pitch about their organization, how they’re formed, what their focus is and how to volunteer if people are interested.
“It’s just a really good experience and people walk away with this new understanding of all of the different organizations that keep the city as a community moving forward,” he added. “So it’s very much more of a ‘community academy’ than just strictly the Citizens Academy. And that’s very intentional.”
The Philomath Citizens Academy was first offered to the community during the summer of 2017 with a group of eight people “graduating” through the program. In the months prior to the inaugural run, there had been discussions in City Council meetings about how to improve communication with local residents.
Workman started to see what other communities were doing with citizens’ academies.
“I looked at a couple of different models and borrowed from what they were doing and over the course of the last several years, we’ve adopted and adjusted it,” Workman said.
Steps have been taken to try to keep the sessions lively and not too bogged down with a lot of complex information. Participants go behind-the-scenes, have an opportunity to get their questions answered and even play a game.
“We do tours, even here at City Hall — (City Recorder) Ruth (Post) takes them on her grand tour in the records room, which doesn’t sound very exciting but after you’ve talked for 35 minutes about the importance of records, retention and the Public Information Act … it’s kind of fun to go in the back room that nobody else ever goes to see and see the boxes and boxes full of all that information,” Workman said.
Workman said the various speakers also just do a good job of keeping people engaged. Workman said Public Works always puts on a great session.
“Kevin (Fear) and Garry (Black) are great — it’s like a little stand-up comedy show between the two of them,” Workman said. “They have some fun with folks and have some nasty video of sewer lines and all that stuff. … They do try to keep it fun.”
Workman sees the academy as a way for people to re-engage with local governance — a topic that a lot of older folks haven’t thought about since their high school years.
“You hear so much about government on the federal level on the news and you get kind of a tainted view,” Workman said. “But when you look at it on a local level, it really is a different animal, you know, it’s run differently. You’re dealing face-to-face with people. … To me, that’s the exciting part about local government — you’re dealing directly with people and you can solve problems a lot quicker and be a little more nimble and be more responsive and the Citizens Academy shows that to folks that your government is maybe more accessible than what you thought.”
Workman said he has seen a connection between course participation and volunteering for committees and organizations.
“There’s a direct correlation between people that attend Citizens Academy and those volunteers either with the city or the fire district or the library or somewhere,” Workman said. “Some of that may not be all causal; people that are taking Citizens Academy are somewhat engaged or interested in being engaged in the community anyway.”
The sessions, he said, often lead to a positive comfort zone between participant and organization.
“After sitting down with folks for a couple of hours, you get to know them a little bit better,” Workman said. “I think that takes the boogeyman stereotype away from it and just brings it back home.”
Beyond the online registration, those interested can also download a registration form that can be printed and turned in at City Hall (980 Applegate St.), sent via postal mail (P.O. Box 400, Philomath, OR 97370) or emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org.