By Mark Fischenich
Free Press Staff Writer
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.”
She’s gotten all of that, including chances to quiz the people who run the Human Services Department, the highway workers, Sheriff Brad Peterson, a county prosecutor, the taxpayer services/elections staff and the five members of the County Board, among others.
“The fact that all the managers took the time to be there on Tuesday nights to answer all our questions, I loved that,” said Depuydt, a lifelong county resident who lives on Mankato’s eastern edge.
Greg Brandt, an employee of FPX (formerly Firepond) in Mankato, signed up for the academy after hearing positive reviews from a co-worker who is an alum.
“I feel if you want to provide an opinion, either pro or con, you need to be informed,” Brandt said. “And if you’re going to be critical, you need to do it from an informed perspective.”
The Eagle Lake resident sees the academy as another step in making county government more accessible to its residents. He applauds the board’s decision to finally begin broadcasting its meetings, held almost exclusively during weekday workday hours, on local access television.
While Brandt hints at a civic-duty motivation for enrolling in the academy, he said it’s been far from a monotonous set of Tuesday nights.
“What you think might be a long haul, all of a sudden the night is gone,” he said.
It helps that the academy moves around. It’s at the historic courthouse in the first week for a discussion with the board, followed by a focus on health and welfare programs at the county government center. Week three is held at the justice center, highlighted by a tour from the sheriff and a courtroom discussion about criminal prosecutions with an assistant county attorney.
At the county highway building in week four, students get to check out the heavy equipment and learn about the roads, bridges, parks and trails the county maintains. Another session is held at the county library. This year’s tour of the landfill, recycling center and household hazardous waste facility was postponed by one of April’s snowstorms.
The unifying message, Beyer said, is “kind of ‘What you’re getting for your tax dollars.’”
Brandt and Depuydt won’t necessarily feel all warm and fuzzy when they send in their property-tax payments this month. But they said the academy provided them with a much deeper understanding of where the money is going and a belief that the staff is a dedicated bunch.
“I’ve gotten to realize just the depth and breadth of responsibility and the areas the county’s involved with,” Brandt said.
And he and his classmates have had a chance to grill county employees a bit about how things are done.
“We keep getting told we’re a very inquisitive group,” Brandt said.
Which might be a prerequisite personality trait to sign up for the academy. Still, the academy has attracted a cross-section of the county population over the years — retired folks, college students, middle-aged couples, a variety of business people, Beyer said.
People interested in joining the 2014 class can contact Beyer by calling the public relations office at the historic courthouse or by emailing her at email@example.com.