1. Archive

They all learn at city hall

Jason Coats has an idea of what President Bush does. He even understands the duties of Gov. Lawton Chiles, kind of. It's what goes on in city governments that has the 14-year-old confused.

Tuesday morning he got some answers.

"I thought they (federal, state and local government officials) were all getting together like a big family to help each other out," Coats said.

He and 21 other middle school students from Most Holy Name of Jesus School in Gulfport took over the duties of city manager, police chief, mayor and several department heads. It was part of a 2-year-old program that celebrates Florida City Government Week.

As city manager for the day, Coats spent much of his morning shaking hands, talking with department heads and preparing for meetings.

"It's a lot of responsibility running a city," he said. Robert Lee, Gulfport's real city manager, escorted him to a meeting with city firefighters.

Coats got help running the city from 14-year-old classmate Michael Ruhman. Two students were assigned to every job.

For Ruhman, the day was filled with just as many important lessons and a pretty big shock:

"I didn't know he (the city manager) is really in charge of everything, from pipes to the Police Department."

Misconceptions like that are among the reasons Mary Jo Cloonan signed her students up for the program: "A lot of them don't realize that it's not just a mayor and the City Council."

Lee said the reason is simple.

"I think the schools tend to concentrate on the history of the Constitution and the national government," Lee said. "Textbooks don't talk about the government that is closest to the people."

The texts didn't prepare Cory Cromartie and Laura Poczatek for their stint as police chief.

"I knew he was the one who sends police out to crimes," Cromartie said reading over a mock police report about a rash of robberies. "I never knew a police chief had to make a budget or plan so much stuff."

Said Poczatek: "I thought I pretty much knew what he did because I watch a lot of TV. The real thing is different."