At the outset of the Asheville City Council’s June 24 meeting, Mayor Terry Bellamy and Council members formally recognized the 29 graduates of the city’s 10-week Citizens Academy. Lawrence Waller, a rising ninth-grader who completed the course with his mother as part of his home-schooling education, delivered an address that would rival any high-school valedictorian’s. Even Bellamy was visibly impressed, saying, “Will somebody please tell Lawrence’s mom that he deserves an A?”
A team of Mountain Xpress reporters also took part—and even managed to collectively graduate. (Thankfully, there was no final exam.) Xpress aimed to learn about city government’s internal operations so its readers wouldn’t have to: During the course, the paper’s “Citizen Xpress” feature provided a write-up of each week’s session.
Trish Hardin, an assistant to City Manager Gary Jackson, coordinated the program. “I think the highlights were getting to know people throughout the community and seeing how engaged they were, each class they came to,” she said. The city has been offering the course for several years, added Hardin, but this was her first time overseeing it.
During a Q-and-A session with Jackson just before graduation, some participants asked him about budget issues: How is funding divvied up between neighborhoods? one wanted to know. How much is the city’s reserve balance? another queried.
Emphasizing that the city is “woefully underfunded,” Jackson noted that nonetheless, the reserve fund stands at a healthy 19.9 percent. And as reflected in a recent inventory, he added, there’s an even distribution of funds across neighborhood boundaries. “I feel very good that in recent years, we’ve been able to pump a significant amount of resources into the police and fire departments as well,” said Jackson.
Citizen Academy graduates, meanwhile, gave the course rave reviews. “Overall, the city treated us well,” said Larry Gant. “The food was good. The show-and-tell was good. There’s a lot more thought and talent that goes into these things than you may give them credit for on a day-to-day basis. I have a lot more patience now when I am on the phone with someone from the city.”
Donna Bateman, too, said she was very pleased with the class. Bateman, whose experience of getting around downtown Asheville by wheelchair has made her an outspoken proponent of sidewalk repair—“Our sidewalks look shitty,” she told Jackson point-blank at the conclusion of the class—is also a regular at City Council meetings.
“I think this is wonderful for citizens to take an interest in the inner structure of government,” Bateman told Xpress. “I loved seeing how everything ran. My next adventure,” she added, “is the Police Academy.”