Civics class

Reno has a program to explain how city government works

After he moved to Reno from San Francisco, Thomas Hill took a course to learn how municipal government works.

After he moved to Reno from San Francisco, Thomas Hill took a course to learn how municipal government works.

Photo By David Robert

“I grew up in Philadelphia and lived in San Francisco for 30-odd years, and I had never experienced this type of educational outreach by city government,” said new Reno resident Thomas Hill.

He is a participant in the Reno city government’s “Citizens Institute,” a program designed to inform local residents about how their municipal government works. Citizens talk to representatives from government and city departments to find out how things are done.

“The idea came from the city manager,” program coordinator Jaime Schroeder said. “He wanted to create an avenue to teach citizens about the municipal government. He may have gotten the idea from other cities. The idea is that citizens have some insight as to why the city does certain things.”

The institute has lessons from many of the city’s departments including the Fire Department, Truckee Meadows Water Authority, the city Motor Pool and many more. Courses are available in the fall and spring and run on Thursdays from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. The courses are free to anyone who fills out the one-page application.

The teachers for the classes are all Reno city employees, mainly heads or deputy chiefs of the city departments. They are usually salaried employees, so “teacher” is added to the job description. The classes are held either at City Hall or on location at the various departments.

“I was impressed of just how accessible the management was to our citizen group,” Hill said. “We asked frank questions and offered praise and criticism. All the speakers appeared truly interested and open.”

Hill moved to Reno from the Bay Area. He said that as a new citizen, he felt he was responsible for learning about the community and wanted to take advantage of an opportunity not offered by many cities. “I felt like a visiting dignitary,” he said of the city program.

Hill said the biggest impression came from learning the difficulty of balancing a budget, which he learned when the Parks and Recreation department had students budget a mock park.

“We were given a budget and soon had to decide between ordering new benches or adding trash containers or adding parking space.” Hill said. “We had to collaborate as team members and, in the end, we could not give the public everything they wanted. It was a practical exercise on understanding the public sector—balancing what citizens want and what citizens are willing to pay.”

Breese Burnley, who is on the city’s Northwest Neighborhood Advisory Board, decided to take the class because the board recommended it. He said the course gave a general overview of how the city operates. He said he was especially impressed by the city motor pool.

“They use bio-diesel and are environmentally conscious,” Burnley said. “All of the employees seem to love their jobs.”

Burnley said that he was skeptical about the city government’s quality, but that changed when he took the course. He said that the course convinced him that the city is operated very efficiently, and the employees hold a genuine sense of civic pride. Thus, the program serves a political need of city government. But not all participants were bewitched by what they heard.

Ellaine Muhleback, a three-year resident, heard about the program through the neighborhood watch. She said she is interested in getting more involved with the city. She said she liked the course but was unhappy to hear about future development plans for the city.

“They’re not stopping it,” Muhleback said. “Developers do as they damn well please.”

Muhleback said that when problems arise, such as residents who can’t park in front of their house because the road wasn’t built wide enough to let a fire truck pass through, they need to know who to talk to. She said the program helps to answer those questions.

She said she was surprised at how involved and enthusiastic the city employees are. She also said she learned what questions to ask and who to contact to get various things done.

Michael Genera, a waste management manager, took the course so he could meet people. He said the group of people attending was very eclectic, ranging from a family and a future candidate for government to retirees.

Genera’s most shocking lesson—literally—came from the police department. He volunteered to test a tazer.

“With that thing, they could get me to do anything they wanted,” Genera said.

The courses are first-come, first-served, and there is only room for about 30 people per semester. The deadline for the fall session is Sept. 8 at 5 p.m.