NEW PORT RICHEY — Pasco County Attorney Jeffrey Steinsnyder stood behind the lectern dispelling myths: No, the county attorney does not prosecute criminals. No, he doesn't handle divorces — even for Pasco residents.
"Ultimately, our client is the Board of County Commissioners and the county administrator and her departments," he said.
Steinsnyder's lecture, a 20-minute overview of his job, came during the county's first Citizens' Academy, a free, nine-session workshop that includes talks by county officials and hands-on demonstrations. The academy, which aims to educate residents about government, met at the West Pasco government center Thursday for its first session — a three-hour overview by department heads.
Citizen academies have become common across Florida as counties and cities look to increase residents' participation and erase misconceptions about officials' jobs. The classes offer a glimpse into how community services are planned and organized, how government agencies function and how budgets are passed. Pinellas started its Citizen University in 2002. Largo and Clearwater have held citizens' academies for years, as well.
"I just think a better-educated citizenry is better for everybody," said County Commissioner Kathryn Starkey, who coined the idea for Pasco's academy and appeared at the first session with Commissioner Ted Schrader and Commission Chairman Jack Mariano.
Pasco's 20-member class was whittled from 49 applicants to represent a cross-section of residents, including a high school student, an accountant, a law enforcement officer, several retirees and two aspiring politicians — Minnie Diaz, a state House candidate, and Bob Robertson, a County Commission candidate.
In addition to educating residents, officials hope the academy sparks an interest in volunteering for the county's citizen boards and commissions. This week, the group will head to the Animal Services division on Dogpatch Lane in Land O'Lakes where, on any given day, 100 or more rescued cats and dogs are available for adoption.
At some point, they'll also visit a library, a park, the fire training center, the solid waste center, Land O'Lakes High School, the county jail and the historic courthouse in Dade City.
The academy's members bring different expectations to the weekly sessions. Some are recent transplants while others have lived here long enough to glimpse Pasco's transformation. Several, such as 18-year-old Hanna Lee, a senior at Wesley Chapel High, said they signed up simply to learn how government works.
Grady Peeler, 62, an accountant from Trinity and president of the Pasco Chapter of the Republican Liberty Caucus, said he wanted to learn about budgeting and finance, including fund transfers.
"Many times we criticize government from a political standpoint, but you really need to walk in their shoes to understand how to cut things and why they did or didn't cut something," he said.
Ways to control congestion and protect neighborhoods topped the menu of topics that piqued Regina Pointer's interest. Pointer, 49, moved to Wesley Chapel in 1994.
"I want to keep it the (same) community I fell in love with when I moved here," she said.
Diaz and Robertson said they enrolled to get an overview and learn the inner workings of county finances.
"I'm more interested in gaining a sense of how all the pieces fit together," Robertson said. "It's one thing to look at the budget. It's another to understand what goes on behind the scenes to get to that point."
Assistant County Administrator Suzanne Salichs organized the academy at the urging of county commissioners after residents indicated during budget hearings that they didn't understand how government works. The idea grew from there.
"Ultimately, we hope they become ambassadors out in the community, and they come back and volunteer and be more engaged in government," Salichs said.