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Ashland - Local Town Pages

Town of Ashland Completes Its First Citizens Academy

By Michael Herbert
For the first half of 2024, sixteen Ashland residents took part in our inaugural Town of Ashland Citizens Academy. Over the course of nine meetings, these residents were able to develop a deeper understanding of our town government structure, get a first-hand look at the operations of the town, and meet and get to know some of our valued employees. While the concept of communities holding Citizens Academies is not a new one, it was nevertheless the first one Ashland has held, and as such we developed our own goals for the academy. Namely, the following outcomes were identified for the program, which met every other Wednesday night:
Education - We wanted attendees to gain a deeper understanding of how local government operates, including its functions, responsibilities, and decision-making processes. This fosters a more informed and engaged citizenry.
Developing Future Local Leaders - The Academy can serve as a pipeline for developing future leaders in the community. Participants may be inspired to pursue careers in public service or volunteer for local boards and commissions, bringing fresh perspectives and expertise to the governance process.
Increasing Transparency & Trust - By providing transparent insight into government operations and the staff who provide services, our Academy help build trust between citizens and their local government. When people understand how and why decisions are made, they are more likely to develop trust in their officials and government institutions.
Through presentations from department heads and staff, and on-site visits to important Town of Ashland facilities like the Public Safety Building and DPW buildings, attendees of the Academy got an up-close look at what our employees do on a regular basis. Departments and topics covered included the town charter and state laws governing the town, finance, public safety, public works, human services, library, planning and economic development, conservation, sustainability, the Town Clerk’s office and information technology among others. We dedicated one meeting to getting attendees feedback on the Comprehensive Plan and the last meeting was more of a “Ask Me Anything” format with our Assistant Town Manager and myself. 
When we first announced the Citizens Academy, we had legitimate questions as to how much interest there would be in the program, but 35 residents applied, quickly quelling that concern.  Ultimately, we had to make the tough decision to exclude people who were currently or had served on a board or committee in order to keep the class size manageable at sixteen. The remaining sixteen were chosen at random. 
And what a great class it was! I was thoroughly impressed by their dedication to the program and their questions and insights. It was clear to us that the class is just as important to this initiative’s success as the program itself. Speaking of success, we feel like we achieved the outcomes noted above, and we’ve been thrilled by the feedback that we have received from our class. Here are a few:
“The Citizens Academy gave me an understanding of how our town government works. I came away with an appreciation for what the various departments do and how it all comes together for Ashland.”  - Janet McKetchnie
“I was amazed by the complexity of managing a small-town government. The dedication of the professionals in their respective roles, starting with the Town Manager, is impressive. If you have the opportunity to attend the academy next year, it will be well worth your time.” Bob Rombauer
This program made me feel more connected to Ashland, other residents and those who serve it.   I have a better appreciation of our Town after learning about the day-to-day operations, goals, and challenges of each department. Engaging in this program, instills a sense of belonging, builds social support networks, and contributes to an overall balanced and fulfilling life within the community.
-Megan Momtaheni
Participating in Citizens Academy made local government more approachable for me. I learned that there are a range of ways to get involved in local government, whether it be running for a board or simply being an engaged resident who participates and provides feedback. - Matt Reynolds
The Citizens Academy is something that I have wanted to put together for a long time, but other initiatives took priority. But it has become clearer to me that the investment in time necessary to build this program is important as we try to encourage our society to have more policy discussions based around facts and knowledge, and not just who can scream the loudest or make the most posts on social media. Based on the feedback received, we will definitely offer this again next year. Also, with one year of experience, we have a better understanding of what tweaks we need to make in order to make next year’s program even better for residents.
In addition to the class, there are a number of people that deserve thanks for this program. First, our Select Board was very supportive of this program and what we are trying to accomplish. Second, Assistant Town Manager Jenn Ball deserves kudos for building such a great program. Finally, I have to thank the department heads and employees that put together the presentations and took the time to answer many, many questions. 
We hope to see you at a future Citizens Academy!