After Garner 101, residents hope to build community

kjahner@newsobserver.comNovember 9, 2013 

Sylvia Kneeshaw is presented a diploma by Garner neighborhood improvement manager Reginald Buie for being in the first class to pass the Garner 101 course. Council members (left to right) Gra Singleton, Ken Marshburn and Kathy Behringer applaud. Economic development director Tony Beasley, right, waits with a tote bag.

KYLE JAHNER — kjahner@newsobserver.com Buy Photo

— Garner 101, a new course aimed at enhancing understanding of municipal government and creating more civic engagement, graduated its first class last week.

Citizen academies like Garner 101 have become more common in the last decade, according to keynote speaker Rick Morse from the UNC School of Government. That movement represents what he sees as a change in the relationship between residents and government.

“They got a better taste for what it takes to operate town government,” said Garner’s neighborhood improvement manager Reginald Buie, who put together the course. “The apathy and distaste for town government, I think that dissipated because they got to see what department heads go through.”

The series of classes brought a class of 25 up to speed on a variety of topics, from police and fire services to budgeting and public works.

Expert guests provided professional insights into their jobs.

At a dinner at the Garner Performing Arts Center last Wednesday, graduates expressed gratitude at the opportunity to learn about the town.

“There was a fantastic amount of information. I learned about how my community works, and the things available to residents,” said Ivan Greene, who repairs medical equipment at Rex Hospital. “My goal was to find out what my community government does, and they do a lot more than I expected.”

Even citizens closer to government than most said they learned a lot. Elmo Vance serves as chairman for the Garner Concerned Citizens United. He called the class a refreshing review and a great chance to network with other residents who wanted to actively work to improve the community.

Amaka Flynn ran for Town vCouncil multiple times, and she also said she learned a lot.

“It was great,” Flynn said. “It was a great way to increase citizen involvement and engagement. I better understand why money is allocated where it is.”

For Morse, academies like this represent a shift from what he called the “vending machine” model of local government, where citizens put money in and expect services to come out.

He foresees and advocates a continued shift to a “barn-raising” model, where citizens work together with government to enact the changes they want in the community. He said the complexity of problems that no one agency can solve – especially with limited resources and decreasing citizen confidence in government – left the vending model untenable.

“What local government is about is building communities,” Morse said. “Our responsibility as citizens is to contribute toward building better communities. Community building, at least in the way I like to think of it, is a joint enterprise between government and citizens (including individuals, nonprofits, businesses).”

Buie said he hoped the graduates would go back to their communities, share what they learned and help create a more informed, engaged and empowered populace.

Steve Creech said he wanted to find out how to best serve his community as president of the Homeowners Association of Brownstone Village.

“It paid immediate dividends,” Creech said, as he alerted public works after learning about their role, and a blocked inlet culvert in the neighborhood was cleared up within a week. “I was surprised at the responsiveness of everyone involved.”

Flynn, meanwhile, was surprised to learn about how much went into generating clean water after a tour of a facility, and all that goes into sanitation. The controversy over deciding who to give the town’s trash collection contract was a prominent issue during one of her campaigns.

She said she understands that situation better now as well.

Jahner: 919-829-4822; Twitter: @garnercleveland

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