Theresa Freed: [00:00] On this week's episode, you'll hear about the program that allows residents to get the behind the scenes look at a wide range of County departments. You'll hear why department leaders are so excited to share about their services and the answer tough questions about everything from taxes to how wastewater is cleaned. Finally, learn how you can get signed up for the Citizens Academy and walk away with a wealth of knowledge about your local government.
Announcer: [00:25] Whether you live in or just love Johnson County, Kansas, JoCo on the Go has everything. Johnson County. Here's what's happening and what's coming up in the community you call home.
Theresa Freed: [00:38] Thanks for joining us for JoCo on the Go. I'm your host, Theresa Freed, a Johnson County resident and employee of Johnson County government. Johnson County Citizens Academy is open to adult residents of all ages and backgrounds. They spend three hours per week for 10 weeks learning the ins and outs of the county, getting an up close look at how and why things are the way they are at the county. Today we're talking to several people who are very involved in the Citizens Academy. We're going to start off with Cindy Green who oversees the program. Cindy, thanks for being here.
Cindy Green: [01:08] Thank you for inviting me. I look forward to talking about the Citizens Academy.
Theresa Freed: [01:12] All right. To start off with, can you describe what your role is with the County?
Cindy Green: [01:15] I am the assistant to the County Manager/Chief of Staff and then part of my role is I supervise the intern who is responsible for facilitating the 10-week Citizens Academy program.
Theresa Freed: [01:29] Okay, and can you tell us also just a little bit about what participants are learning when they go through the Citizens Academy?
Cindy Green: [01:37] They are going to learn all avenues of the County government, which a lot of people don't even realize how many departments and agencies make up the government in the County, and so it just gives them an inside look. Just an overview. It's not real super in-depth even though we could spend hours going into more detail because citizens ask lots of good questions, but they're going to spend time learning how the budget is put together, where the budget is spent, where the income comes in to pay for those budget items. They'll be hearing about opportunities that they get to volunteer in the different departments and agencies. We currently have 12 different departments that look for volunteers. Also opportunities to be appointed to a board or a commission. So it's a great way for us to educate people on some of those opportunities they may have some expertise in or just an interest in, in wanting to get more involved in the government. You'll get an inside look at the election office, lots of fun tours you get to go to the jail. Nine one, one call center, our emergency operations center and the wastewater plant.
Theresa Freed: [02:44] And I'm happy to see, I just finished up participation in the program. As a Johnson County employee, it's been a great way to get in-depth information about our departments and also see what matters to the residents and based on the questions they ask. But those who aren't government employees also seem to be really engaged in each of the sessions. So is that pretty typical?
Cindy Green: [03:01] That is very typical. We get people that are very engaged because that's why they apply and commit to a 10 week class. I'm in three hours each night. It is a busy, busy time. But they do, they ask great questions. It's interesting the things they learn, the perspective that they bring of sometimes new ideas of things that we could be doing different in the County or just educating them on what the County does so they have a better understanding.
Theresa Freed: [03:28] Okay. And so why does the County put this on?
Cindy Green: [03:32] The County puts this on because part of the reason was they were looking for an opportunity to tell people what does the County do? Cause a lot of times you may go ask for the increase to build the new courthouse. But it's like, why do we need a new courthouse? Well when they really learn about it and understand the facts behind it of how overcrowded we were and how ancient our building had gotten, we discovered that there's lots of things people don't know about what the County does or how we do it. And it was a good way to educate them. We also were looking for more volunteers for those 12 agencies and departments I mentioned and for getting people that were interested in being a participant on our boards and commissions. And it just opened up that Avenue for us.
Theresa Freed: [04:13] And one of the things I thought was kind of interesting is that some of the participants on our closing night of, of Citizens Academy, the graduation were talking about how they share the knowledge that they gained in the, in the room on these tours and in these sessions and spread that throughout the community. And I think that really speaks to how passionate people become about the government. All right. So we know it is a really popular program and there's actually a waiting list for it. So how do people get involved and when can they expect to actually participate?
Cindy Green: [04:29] So we offered the class two times a year, once in the spring, and we'll be starting that class in early February. And then we start one in late August, September. It really depends upon the intern schedule and we also kind of work it around holidays in those weeks that we're off. So they can register for the class at any time. We're always taking applications and you can do that on our County website, which is jocogov.org and just type in Citizens Academy. It'll take you to that. We have not set the exact class times for February, but we'll probably have an early January timeframe for a cutoff. And then we'll review all the applications we have at that time and we look to get a diverse mixture across the County. We're looking for people from a variety of cities and ages and just we want the class to be something for all in the County and not just a specific group.
Theresa Freed: [05:20] Okay. So the way the wait list is not tremendous. It's not like you're going to be waiting years to get into the class, right?
Cindy Green: [05:44] Not necessarily, but some people have applied multiple times and not get gotten in because we do have, we only take 40 people and if 120 apply each time, we can't get everybody in. But we do like to keep it at that size. People are like, why don't you have more classes or make the class bigger? We don't have rooms to hold more people a lot of times on these tours and such. So 40 is a good number that we get people to participate, get to know each other, they make friends out of these classes. We asked them to come back and volunteer the next couple of years. If they're available and it's just a great networking opportunity for them also.
Theresa Freed: [06:19] All right. Great information. Thanks for being with us.
Cindy Green: [06:22] Thank you.
Theresa Freed: [06:24] One of the great things about the Citizens Academy is that it gives interns a chance to learn a lot about the County government in a short amount of time. Each session, an intern that's studying public administration from a college is hired on to take on the coordination of speakers, meeting locations, meals, all the logistics of holding the Citizens Academy. This session, Kylie Heine is taking on that role. Kylie, thanks for being here.
Kylie Heine: [06:45] Yeah, thanks for having me.
Theresa Freed: [06:48] All right. So tell us about how you got involved in the program.
Kylie Heine: [06:51] Yeah, so I am currently getting my Masters of Public Administration at KU and Johnson County is one of the intern, one of the many intern programs that is available to the fellows at the KU program. So I was lucky enough to have, be chosen for this internship. And one of my biggest responsibilities in this internship is to do the Citizens Academy. So here I am now.
Theresa Freed: [07:16] Right. And you kind of do it from start to finish, isn't that right?
Kylie Heine: [07:19] Yes. uh-huh. So I will do it this for the fall and again in the spring.
Theresa Freed: [07:24] Oh, you're doing it for two sessions? Great.
Theresa Freed: [07:26] All right. So what have you learned through this leadership role?
Kylie Heine: [07:30] Yeah. So I have a much better understanding of how local government works overall, which is really beneficial since I will hopefully be a public servant someday, hopefully soon. And earning my Master's Degree is obviously really important. But so is this hands on experiences that the internship provides? So I've been able to improve, you know, my public speaking skills, my organization skills, and I've gotten a really I've never had to coordinate schedules before, which is a lot more work than I anticipated. So that's been really beneficial for me. And I really gotten a taste of the management side of government work, which has been really great. I've also gotten a little bit of a taste of what it feels like, the good feeling of being a public servant. So I feel like I'm contributing to the community. I'm helping people learn about how government works and that makes me feel really good, which is why I want to go into this work.
Theresa Freed: [08:21] Right. And I know maybe in college, not all classes, you know, everybody's engaged in what the instructor's saying, but it's a very different atmosphere at Citizens Academy. The people who are participating really want to be there. Is that what you're seeing too?
Kylie Heine: [08:29] Oh, definitely, definitely.
Theresa Freed: [08:33] Okay. So are there any sessions that you've really enjoyed planning or participating in?
Kylie Heine: [08:38] Yeah, so I really loved the Human Services presentation I was and still am so impressed by all the services and resources our County provides through the Human Services department. I had the pleasure of meeting and working with a few of the Human Services employees and I'm very proud to be a part of the County team. I also really loved visiting the wastewater treatment facility. We tend to not think about where water goes and what happens to it once it leaves our house. So it was really interesting to see some aspects of the treatment process firsthand because it's really essential to, you know, our survival.
Theresa Freed: [09:11] All right. And maybe talk a little bit about that, that session. We got a chance to tour some things that most people would not get to see ordinarily. Right?
Kylie Heine: [09:20] Yeah. Yeah. So we got to tour a couple of different buildings. They're pretty dark and full of water and smell a little murky, but it was really cool to learn about how they mimic the natural processes of how water is treated. So I was really impressed by that.
Theresa Freed: [09:36] Yeah, I thought that was one of the great presentations as well. And it was also nice that we got to actually do some walking and move around and see and smell a little bit, not much. Right. So it was a, it was a fun activity to be able to be a part of that. All right. So is there anything else you want to say to our listeners, just about what they gained from being part of this?
Kylie Heine: [09:57] Yeah, so I just think it gives you a much better sense of community and encourages people to be involved and it exposes you to a lot of volunteer opportunities that you may not have been aware of beforehand. And I think it just, you know, enriches our community when people are more involved, so...
Theresa Freed: [10:13] All right. That sounds great. Well thank you very much and good luck and we'll, I guess we'll see you back here at the next session, right?
Kylie Heine: [10:19] Yeah. Thank you.
Theresa Freed: [10:20] Participants in Citizens Academy are civic minded and have lots of questions about the way the County works among that group is Claire Reagan who like myself is part of the current Citizens Academy group. Claire, thanks for being here.
Claire Reagan: [10:31] My pleasure entirely.
Theresa Freed: [10:32] All right, so why did you have an interest in joining the Citizens Academy?
Claire Reagan: [10:38] Well, I actually did, the Olathe Civic Academy earlier this year and I was thinking back to what got me interested in that. And it was actually a friend of mine who had done the Johnson County Citizens Academy and just the availability of the dates, the Olathe one fell first, but I had gotten more involved as far as civic knowledge and engagement around the elections last fall. And it made me realize that we gotta do as citizens, we need to do more than vote and in order to, you know, serve our community the way it serves us, it's really important to be informed. And the, the Academy seemed like an excellent opportunity to learn about the massive scope of what the County does for residents.
Theresa Freed: [11:18] Okay. And so what do you think people gain from the experience?
Claire Reagan: [11:29] You know, I think people get an appreciation, appreciation for a lot of the behind the scenes work that is done at the County level. I think there are a lot of services that people are not aware of that exist. It's also really nice to meet people from different areas of the County that, you know, I'm not as familiar with, you know, different residents who stories and life circumstances are very different than mine. It's also neat to get to see parts of the County that are not as obvious to regular citizens. I lived over by the wastewater treatment plant on College. We moved out to Olathe last year, but, and I didn't know it was there and you can't smell it. So, you know, we got to see those types of things and I really like getting to see things firsthand.
Theresa Freed: [12:06] Right. And what have you enjoyed the most out of the experience?
Claire Reagan: [12:09] Well, I really like seeing the professionalism and the dedication of the different County staff members. You can really see their passion and their various fields. You know, I enjoyed very thoroughly the parks and rec presentation we had looking at the strategic plan down the road and getting to see, you know, a little bit more of the arts and heritage center. But if I'm being totally honest, I really think wastewater is cool and the way that the County handles it, you know, how it's, you know, bio-processed or whatnot, they don't use a lot of harsh chemicals. And I just think that's fascinating. You know, the things that come out of our homes and then the County does what it needs to so that it's safe to go downstream. I just find that really, I don't, I made, that makes me strange, but I think wastewater is kind of cool. I also thought it was really neat to see all 2100 voting machines. It looked kind of like the movie I showed my husband the picture. It looked like the movie, like "I, Robot," you know, all the machines out there, but you see that and you're like, it kind of, I took pause, you know, that's democracy right there. And just seeing the scope and extent of that operation alone made me appreciate voting in the last election a little bit more.
Theresa Freed: [13:16] All right. And I know you're a teacher here locally and have you been able to share some of your experiences with your class?
Claire Reagan: [13:22] Yeah, my students know that I do various things in the community, you know, trying to find the different time and I, I do share with them, you know, my passion for understanding and learning more about where we live. And, you know, I even had students, you know, what my one student who was able to legally vote in the last election he asked me, you know, different places to go find information and I'm more well versed in those things just from the different people I've met through this Academy and through the Olathe Civic Academy. And I think too, that, you know, when kids see adults model civic engagement, they are much more likely to engage in it themselves. And like most things, if you started early it, it's something that's going to sustain them. And so I think honestly, just telling them what I do in my life is helpful. And I also teach writing. And so helping students be able to articulate themselves and then use that articulation to serve their community in whatever capacity they will do when they're older is really powerful. So, but I, yeah, maybe I talk more about my life than I should in class, but I find that the kids get more out of it. And then if we just talk about, you know, the literature and whatnot,
Theresa Freed: [14:26] Right. And what I think is kind of interesting about the Citizens Academy is, you know, it's three hours after you've already worked a full day. So it can be a long day. But I am always shocked by how many questions people are still asking. They are paying attention and interested in the topics no matter what the topic is, which I think is really cool.
Claire Reagan: [14:45] I definitely agree. And I personally, you know, I have young children and so Thursdays I really get to see my kids very much, but my husband and I both agree that it's a worthy amount of...it's a worthwhile use of my time because it's benefited our family too. Just different things I've learned and been able to tell people about. And my husband is become more well versed as well because we talk about the things I learned and it's, it is a time commitment, but I don't think it's one that people what should shirk away from, I think it's something that even after a long day it's worthwhile. And I think that the different things we get to see, I don't feel, entertained isn't the right word, but I always feel engaged, which is sometimes hard to do at eight 30 on a Thursday night.
Theresa Freed: [15:27] All right, well just last question. Any messages you have for fellow Johnson County residents who may be considering signing up for this?
Claire Reagan: [15:33] You know, I, I would say just do it, you know, there's a, there's two of them throughout the year and I believe that the application is open all the time so you can just get your name on that list and it is a time commitment for sure. But they do let you miss two different two weeks. You know, I had a wedding and then I had a different engagement and and it is worthwhile. I don't know that through this Academy or the previous one I did, I have not spoken to anyone who regretted the time or regretted the effort to go. And I, if you're interested at all, I would do it because any little interest sets you apart from the general population. And we need people to become more informed.
Theresa Freed: [16:10] All right. Great message there. And thank you so much for joining us.
Claire Reagan: [16:13] Thank you for having me.
Theresa Freed: [16:15] As you heard, wastewater was a popular sessions. Susan Pekarek joining us now, director of that department. So tell us why do you, why do you enjoy presenting at these sessions and also what do you hope the participants get out of your tour?
Susan Pekarek: [16:28] Thanks Theresa. I'd be happy to. So I enjoy presenting at Citizens Academy because frankly I'm very passionate about our community and about the environment. JCW is a big part of protecting our community and the environment that we all experience as we live here. And we, we are a big part of helping preserve the high quality of life that we enjoy here in Johnson County. So when participants come, we actually take them on a tour of the wastewater treatment facility and I hope what happens is that they get a better understanding of what goes into cleaning the water that they use every single day in their homes and businesses. And so what we hope is that they understand what all must be done to the water to ensure that it's clean. And safe prior to returning it to our streams and rivers. And hopefully through understanding, through the understanding of Citizens Academy, they also know what they can and can't put down the drain. Things that help us better do our job so that we can ensure that we can clean their water and keep their rates as low as possible. It also means that they understand, they live in a community where the staff is dedicated to their jobs and we win awards for doing our job every single year. I'm proud of what we do and I hope the participants see that when they visit us.
Theresa Freed: [17:42] All right. And as one of those participants, I know, I also really enjoyed that tour and was shocked that it was not at all smelly. And I think that was my biggest surprise. And I don't know. I mean I think, I think people just really enjoyed being able to see what the process was. It was one of the opportunities I think that most people don't normally get.
Susan Pekarek: [18:04] Yes, I would agree. So thank you. I'm glad you enjoyed it and thanks for being here. Thank you.
Theresa Freed: [18:09] And for more on our discussion about Citizens Academy. I'm joined by Executive Director of the Johnson County Airport Commission, Aaron Otto and Aaron, thanks for being with us. All right. We're talking about the Citizens Academy in this holds a special place in your heart. I'm sure
Aaron Otto: [18:18] It does. So my first experience at Citizens Academy when I was a student at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas and the city of Manhattan put on a Citizens Academy that I thought was fascinating that taught you so much about the services that provided how it was done and really get to meet the people that are very passionate about the public service they get to perform in serving their fellow residents. And so when I had a chance to go to Roeland Park to be the City Administrator, I saw a similar opportunity to educate the residents, even the governing body in some cases, to get a chance to see behind the scenes what makes things go, how do these things happen?
Aaron Otto: [18:53] I mean, you have an expectation. We turn on the water, it will be there when you go out. And it's snowing, the roads will be cleared and you'll parks will be clean. How does that stuff happen? Who does it, how's it funded? That's the kind of stuff we wanted to put in the Citizens Academy. And so when I had a chance to come to Johnson County Government, I pitched the idea and went through a process that we have for new ideas for employees and it got a little bit of traction and it's kinda taken us to where we are today.
Theresa Freed: [19:15] All right. And how many years ago was that?
Aaron Otto: [19:16] That would have been started in 2015 that discussion, I think the first class was in 2016. I think the concern by the County Manager at the time was, well, we'll do a couple of classes and we'll cover everybody that's interested with this kind of stuff and who else will take the class? And I've been probably one of my greatest sense of satisfaction had been twofold. One would be, is the fact that we constantly have a waiting list for the getting into the program. And I knew that with a community of several hundred thousand people with the turnover that we have, that there'd always be, I think, continued interest in this program. So that's, that's good. I think they show some value and I know definitely people have referred it to their friends and that that gives me really a good feeling that it was worth their time. But the second thing is we've been able to get both volunteers from Meals on Wheels to volunteers on boards and commissions. When I was in Roeland Park at one point half our governing body had been through that program. And it's just great when you have a chance to share and expose what, how things operate and what makes things go to, especially decision makers. That's a, it's a great place to be.
Theresa Freed: [20:11] I know as an employee I get a great deal out of it. Just getting that in-depth information about each of the departments and being able to go to where they're at and see how they operate. I think it's really helpful. Obviously the citizens who are participating are really excited and enthusiastic and you enjoy presenting, right?
Aaron Otto: [20:28] Absolutely. I've got a chance to present every year first before I was part of the airport commission, talking more about Johnson County in general, but even with the airport commission, because a lot of people don't know that Johnson County has to the busiest airports in the state or runs a railroad or runs a water system. And so when you get people out there and they can actually see it and they just, I you always get that surprise factor. I didn't know this is part of what kind of government does, that's probably been the biggest takeaway is that that with all the 30 plus departments, agencies and offices, that people don't have a full appreciation. They may know the service exists, but they don't realize it's part of Johnson County Government. And so to see the totality of it, and we pack a lot into, right now it's 10 sessions, about two and a half, three hours a night each week, once a week. Man that is, that is a lot to take in, but really kind of exposes, again, people to the depth and breadth of what takes place in our County.
Theresa Freed: [21:14] All right. Any words of advice for those who are about to take the program?
Aaron Otto: [21:19] Well, if make sure you have the time and interest to do it, but if you do be committed cause your seed probably you got chosen over five or six other people that didn't make it through. But the reality is there's never fear asking a good question. And I, the classes have always had a never enough time to ask all the questions they want. So we've definitely been having good selections. But but yeah, if you're, if you're interested in learning little bit more about your county, apply, if you don't make it apply again, learn about what makes them go learn about the equipment as you mentioned and see what we, how we provide these different services. But yeah, I'd really encourage people to take a look at it. We offer it twice a year right now. And it's just such a great opportunity to see behind the curtain of how things work.
Theresa Freed: [21:57] All right, sounds good. Thanks for being with us..
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