The Town of Friendly People hasn’t exactly been a front runner in the realm of resident participation in governmental affairs in recent years.
Few residents, if any, regularly attend meetings of Zebulon’s elected officials and appointed boards. When they do show up, it’s usually to ask something of the town or because town leaders are expected to vote on a ruling that would directly affect them.
The town wants more public involvement and may have found a way to get it, by holding a series of informational sessions essentially serving as a crash course in how government operates.
Town Manager Rick Hardin said details are still being ironed out, but he hopes to provide commissioners with a formal plan with in the next couple months that details what other local towns have called their “citizens academy.” The Zebulon town board gave general approval of the idea at its meeting Sept. 17.
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“I envision it would be somewhere between six-to-eight meetings at an hour or two per class to complete the course,” Hardin said. “Each night is a different topic; it could be police one night, fire the next, then planning.”
Hardin said the sessions would be free and could begin by late winter or early spring. He said most towns limit their academies to about 20 participants, but that Zebulon would be happy to have a dozen sign up and would likely hold the class even if there was less, so long as turnout is reasonable.
According to Hardin, a lot of people don’t understand the different processes and state requirements the town has to follow and the reasons behind a lot of the actions it takes.
“This is an opportunity for citizens to get first-hand knowledge on how things work and be able to ask questions to department heads in person,” he said. “We feel like it will promote community participation.”
Encouraging public involvement is Commissioner Beverly Clark’s main hope for the endeavor.
She said she had doubts about the value of holding the course in Zebulon until she considered that it may lead more residents to become interested in their local government.
“We have such low turnout at meetings, and when we do it’s often when somebody wants or needs something,” Clark said. “I think people should care about the town they live in.
“It just seems like people’s lives are so busy now that it’s just not on the top of their list, but I think it needs to be incorporated in their lives; they need to be aware of what’s going on in town. It’s not that I don’t think they care, but maybe they could show a little more interest.”
To keep the public’s interest, Clark said the town should try to keep things light in its first run at educating its own.
“If we start it out slow, keep it small and not have too much information to where we bombard people and give them the basics, then we can progress from there,” she said.