Two or three times a month, Blue Earth County residents have — and have conspicuously avoided — the opportunity to watch their county government in action when the county commissioners hold their regular meetings in front of rows of mostly empty chairs.
On six Tuesday nights in early spring, though, it’s been a different story.
For five years, 20 or so residents have signed up for the Blue Earth County Citizens Academy, voluntarily surrendering 18 hours of their lives to learn about the county’s welfare services, the way its roads are managed, the workings of the criminal justice system and how county garbage is handled.
“When we graduate (on May 7), we’ll have 100 people who have gone through it,” said Jessica Beyer, the county’s communications manager and founder of the Citizens Academy.
It was a unique program among Minnesota’s 87 counties when Beyer first tried the idea. Now, there have been a number of inquiries by other counties and the state’s most populous — Hennepin — has created its own academy.
“A lot of cities have their police academies, where you can learn about law enforcement,” Beyer said. “ ... This is really an opportunity for citizens to ask and learn about the different areas of county government.”
The county hasn’t had to hold a lottery system to pare down the applicants for the academy, but the 20 spots have been filled each year and they’ve occasionally had to expand the class by one or two spots or ask people to wait until next year.
Kathleen Depuydt is in the 2013 class and has thoroughly enjoyed it. Depuydt concedes she might be a bit more curious than average about topics others find mundane.
“I probably see things differently, but I do want to know about everything,” said Depuydt, who works in real estate and sales/marketing. “... I just wanted to know, behind the scenes, what the county offers, the services, the managers.”