This spring, the city of Ann Arbor will welcome a cohort of 25 residents for its inaugural “Citizens Academy.” The program aims to broaden civic understanding and offer Ann Arbor residents a perspective into the functioning of local government.
Over the course of six weeks from March 28 to May 2, participants will have the chance to attend weekly sessions covering topics ranging from the mechanics behind city budgeting to water quality. Each week’s session will meet at a different location ranging from the Water Treatment Plant to the Communication Television Network offices.
The initial idea for an Ann Arbor Citizens Academy came from the popular Ann Arbor Citizens’ Police, Fire and Courts Academy, established in 2008, which provide citizens the opportunity to engage with public safety operations. AAPFCA has been well received by the community according to Ann Arbor Police Service Specialist Jamie Giordano, who has been at the helm of the program for the past two years. The success of the AAPFCA, Giordano said, can be seen with the participants’ willingness to contribute to the city and their community.
“Last year in our group we had many of the members that were part of our group also were part of the Citizens Emergency Response Team program, so they’re are helping out the community in that way,” Giordano said. “Many of them went on to become neighborhood watch captains, so they are a liaison between the police department and their neighborhoods to bridge the gap and get information out into the community and from the community to us. Sharing their experiences helps the relationship between our department and the city.”
The application process to participate in the academy includes two components. The first component is a required application form with two short answer questions. The second component is an optional photo challenge where applicants have the opportunity to send photos of themselves at various Ann Arbor landmarks. Applications are due on March 2 by 5 p.m.
The city has provided a detailed explanation of the selection process on their website. Applicants must be eighteen years old to apply. Ann Arbor residents and those who indicate they can attend all meetings will be given preference in the application review. A point-based system will be used to identify the top 25 scoring participants who will then be offered a spot in the Citizens Academy.
Ann Arbor resident Kathy Griswold applauded the effort by the city to create a citizens council, but has reservations concerning the application process.
“On the surface it sounds like an excellent goal. In looking through the application process and how selective they plan to be, I am a little concerned about whether they are going to be selecting citizens that could be like-minded and use this as a development for potential council candidates who agree with the majority,” she said.
Ann Arbor resident Mary Morgan, the founder of the CivCity Initiative, a nonpartisan nonprofit with the mission to increase civic participation within Ann Arbor, was excited about the announcement of a Citizens Academy and believes it is too early to tell if there are consequences to the application requirement.
“I think there is a definitely a lot of room for improvement in helping people learn about local government. So I am really happy to see the city is offering the citizens academy. It is difficult to really judge the application process that they have until you see what the outcome is. I think that having some kind of application process reflects a level of interest,” Morgan said.
Despite concerns regarding the application, Morgan emphasized the Citizens Academy is a positive step toward increasing avenues for civic participation within Ann Arbor. Morgan cited uncontested races for City Council and low voter turnout as evidence for the disengagement among the Ann Arbor community.
“I think especially since the 2016 national election there is a heightened awareness of the importance of our democracy and our civic health,” Morgan said. “But a lot of that heightened attention is directed at national level issues and to some extent state level issues like concerns about gerrymandering. I think that it starts local and you actually have the ability to influence outcomes more easily at the local level but people often tend to discount it. There is a lot of things that we can do as a community and I am glad to see the Citizens Academy, but of course I would love to see more.”