Zeeland launches inaugural Citizen’s Academy

This summer, the city of Zeeland is rolling out the inaugural session of Zeeland’s Citizen’s Academy. This program is designed to help residents expand their knowledge of the structure and functions of their city government. 

Sessions will examine the fundamentals of the city’s administration and library, finance, IT, streets, parks, cemeteries and utilities, public safety, community  development, downtown, and marketing. Additional topics will include the basics of local government,  elections, local history and more. 

“We’re excited to get to know more of our community members through this program and help  them get to know us, too,” says Mayor Kevin Klynstra.  

Zeeland’s Citizen’s Academy is designed for community leaders, current or potential future appointed or elected officials, curious residents and students with an interest in local affairs. 

Participants must be at least 16 years old and either be a resident of the city of Zeeland, a utility customer of the Zeeland Board of Public Works, or work at an employer located within the city. The academy’s 15 spots are full, but names are being added to a wait list.

The City of Zeeland Citizen’s Academy will be held on five Wednesdays, July 10-Aug. 7, from 6–8:30 p.m. Participation in four sessions is a requirement for graduation. 

“We were intentional about making it long enough that's meaningful but also covering all the aspects of the city to the best of our ability. But recognizing that it is the summer, people have lives, including staff who are supporting this,” says Andrew Boatright, general manager of the   Zeeland Board of Public Works.

Building engagement

The idea emerged from Zeeland City Council’s goal-setting sessions in January. 

“The idea was to develop a way to engage citizens. In the context of what we see in local government, it is important for citizens to be engaged in local governance and understanding how decisions are made and why decisions are made,” says Boatright.

The academy is modeled on similar programs in other communites. Boatright is leading the effort with the city manager Tim Klunder. 

“It’s just a great way for citizens to understand  the inner workings of local governance and get to know us and for us to get to know them,” Boatright says. “Another aspect might be an opportunity for citizens to take a look at whether or not they want to engage in volunteerism or become involved in a board or commission and our City Council.”

He says turnover on the City Council and BPW board is very low, but “obviously that can't last forever, so it would behoove us to have a pipeline of interested citizens that we could tap for appointments or consideration in elected offices and other volunteer roles.” 

Building engagement

He adds that the city’s public meetings are advertised on the city’s website, and informational packets for each meeting are available to see. However, “we don't get a lot of engagement,” Boatright says.

“In the five years I've been here, I haven't seen a standing room situation at City Council,” he says. “In the case of the Board of Commissioners for the Board of Public Works, we've had maybe one or two visitors over the course of five years.”

The city doesn’t record its sessions, but it complies with the Open Meetings Act. 

“We endeavor to have a very transparent culture here, and so we want to engage our citizens whether they have good or bad things to say about us,” Boatright says.

One of the people who signed up for the academy indicated he wanted to “see behind the scenes and kick the tires. I'm interested in learning more about the city and ways I can get involved. My goal is to get a better understanding of how the city Zeeland operates.”

Another expressed interest “learning about my community in my environment and using this knowledge and my skills to promote understanding, excitement, and increased positivity within society in our local neighborhoods.”

Another wanted to explore how “local government works and getting involved to help preserve the great schools and local services we have in Zeeland.”
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Read more articles by Shandra Martinez.