The class kicked off with a “show-and-tell” display of Pasco County’s firefighting and rescue vehicles in the parking lot outside of the county’s Emergency Operations Center. It ended with an up-close look inside the command center of the county’s 911 operations.
“It was fascinating,” said Nancy Menendez. The Land O’ Lakes resident expressed surprise that the 911 center wasn’t larger. Blinking red lights mounted at each cubicle signaled a call in progress.
Menendez noticed the even-keeled, calm tones of call operators and dispatchers as they answered nearly nonstop calls in rapid-fire succession.
She is one of about 20 students chosen from about 50 applicants to attend the county’s third Citizens Academy. The first academy was in 2014.
There are two semesters a year, in spring and fall. Anyone who lives or works in Pasco, and is 18 years of age or older, can qualify. Students in each semester come from all five of the county’s election districts.
The goal is to inform residents about local government as well as their roles as participants. The hope also is that students who come to the academy will want to be ambassadors, sign up for advisory boards or find other ways to volunteer.
“Most of the folks learn something,” said Randy TeBeest, assistant county administrator for public safety. “I’m betting they learn a lot. This really gives them an idea of where tax dollars go to and why and how we decide to spend those precious dollars.”
Menendez found herself in the academy after discovering the program on a random search through the government website.
“It really sounded interesting,” said Menendez who at age 59 is beginning to think about retirement.
“I’m not going to sit home and watch TV,” she said. “I’m going to get involved. I want to see what I want to do in my future life. I’ve been enjoying this. It’s an experience I’ve not expected.”
Each class focuses on a specific area of government such as constitutional officers or planning and development. Last week’s class was about public safety and included briefings on the departments of misdemeanor and probation, and emergency management. The Office of Tourism Development was on the agenda, too.
Organizers try to include an interactive element in each class, such as the 911center tour.
In March, the academy convened at the Dade City courthouse for a mock public hearing with students playing the roles of county commissioners and the residents who took sides on a proposed housing project.
New Port Richey resident Marilyn Shaw played a resident who opposed the development. “It’s so fun,” she said.
Though she has done public speaking before, the retired registered nurse said, “You find out what your skills are. I felt very honored (to be selected for the academy). I wanted to be more active in government and understand what department does what.”
Some students want to hone existing skills and knowledge.
Land O’ Lakes resident Sandy Graves is on the board member for the Central Pasco Chamber of Commerce. Her chamber connection was partly her motivation for signing up for the academy.
But she also said, “I think it’s important we all learn to work together. Local government is where it affects you most.”
She has a new awareness of the many levels of government.
“I didn’t know it was that complicated,” Graves said. “Bureaucracy tends to do that. There are so many times you don’t know who it is to call or what they do.”
Trilby resident Richard Riley is a retiree and an activist in the Dade City area.
“I feel it’s necessary to know what’s happening and how it’s happening in the county. This (program) is on-site, hands-on.”
The academy is meeting his expectations. “I’m learning who to contact, and who to thank,” he said. “We pay taxes for these people. It’s necessary to see how well things are running.”
Jeromy Harding, 24, owns an insurance business in Port Richey. He ran in the Republican primary for State House Representative, District 36, the seat vacated by Pasco Tax Collector Mike Fasano.
“I’d do it again,” Harding said. “I’m very active politically in west Pasco.”
The academy is a chance to learn more about the county commission, voting issues and the budget process, Harding said.
At an upcoming class, students will learn about how budgets are put together and participate in an exercise similar to the mock hearing in Dade City.
Learning the nuts and bolts of county government is the motivation for Julian Ford. The 39-year-old is an entrepreneur, spiritual leader and owner of a business in Dade City. He grew up in Pasco and lives in Lacoochee.
“I want to put myself in a position to make a more valuable contribution not just to me, but to my (community),” said Ford.
When the academy is over, Ford said he wants to be in a position to explain to other people how government works.
“It’s doing exactly what I want it to do. It’s connecting the dots, answering the why,” he said. Later on, he said, “I can be the why.”
Published April 8, 2015