Education can improve understanding, and Missoula’s leaders want citizens to understand what is and isn’t possible, especially with a strained city budget.
That’s why two City Council members are inviting residents to apply to attend Missoula’s first Local Government Citizens’ Academy, which starts in January.
While many people learned a little about local government in high school, this program will be a government-class refresher and then some.
Over the course of eight weeks, participants will get a crash course each Tuesday on the city’s responsibilities and how various departments, from police to street maintenance, work to carry out those responsibilities.
“Most people have no idea of a lot of what we do as councilors. They expect more than we can do sometimes – (things that are) outside our role as legislators. They tend to think we’re the executive branch, but we’re not,” said councilwoman Heather Harp.
Harp and Councilwoman Gwen Jones had a little more of a struggle getting citizens to understand that this year. The City Council had to navigate its way through a “painful process” of determining the next city budget. Part of that involved having to curtail some projects and services, which frustrated some residents, especially as property taxes continued to rise due to bonds and initiatives.
“What it comes down to is we approve or disapprove the executive budget. But what doesn’t get highlighted is the context for all those decisions, for the betterment of our community,” Harp said.
After having to repeatedly explain the process to their constituents, Harp and Jones wanted a better way to bring people up to speed. Both had attended the Citizens’ Law Enforcement Academy and remembered how much they had learned. So why not have a similar academy for people to learn about government?
“By golly, we have some great department heads who come into our committee meetings and we learn a lot about what they’re doing. Why can’t they do the same thing here?” Harp said. “What we thought this academy would do is highlight and celebrate all the good that our various departments provide our citizens.”
This is the pilot year for the academy and it may be repeated a few years in the future, Harp said. But the real need is in the present.
Jones said the City Council is primarily looking for people who are involved in their neighborhoods, maybe leaders in their neighborhood councils, and who are good communicators. Once these citizens understand the workings of the city, they can be liaisons when future issues arise. And maybe some will eventually be inspired to serve on the council.
They will bring department heads in to explain their roles in an academic setting. So there’s no place for people whose primary interest might be challenging or debating particular policies or the need for various programs.
“I’m sure there will be comments here and there. Brian Hensel will discuss potholes. And snowplowing. But after listening, the participants’ questions might change,” Jones said.
For those who are interested in learning more about city government, applications may be completed online at https://www.ci.missoula.mt.us/FormCenter/Neighborhoods-6/Missoula-Citizens-Academy-239 .
Or contact Karen Gasvoda at 552-6084 or firstname.lastname@example.org to request an application through the mail.
Deadline for submission is Dec. 28.