Laguna's civics program is at least a good starting point

You've heard how a good-news, bad-news joke works.

For example, the good news is the city of Laguna Beach is going to start giving civic lessons to select residents.

The bad news is the city of Laguna Beach is going to start giving civic lessons to select residents.

There are variations to this — glass half full, watch out for what you wish for, best laid plans, double-edged sword, etc. — and all of them work because they all rely on good intentions. And most people have good intentions.

So in this case, the city is hoping to inspire new volunteers to join its committees by offering the second annual Leadership Laguna program.

Starting March 2, it will host two-hour weekly sessions on everything about Laguna: police, fire, water, finance, legal — you name it. Nearly every city department will have its turn at the presentation fire hose, dousing would-be leaders in local civics.

The activity, by its nature, is both risky and full of potential.

You could scare people away with the sometimes arcane, mind-numbing processes, or you could spark a fire under someone and have her walk out wanting to run for a seat on the City Council.

Judie Mancuso chose the latter.

Mancuso was part of the inaugural class of 20 graduates last year. When she started the Thursday night sessions, she had no desire to do anything other than educate herself. Five weeks later, she was shaking her fists and collecting signatures.

"I decided to run because of that," she said. "I went in wanting to alleviate my concerns, and instead it exacerbated them. At the end it just fired me up. I was like, that's it, I'm running for City Council."

There are still a few spots open for the upcoming workshops, held from 7 to 9 p.m. Thursdays from March 2 to 30. To apply visit: www.lagunabeachcity.net/cityhall/council/leadership_laguna.htm.

Participants in the program, co-sponsored by the city and the Laguna Beach Community Foundation, will hear from the city manager and city attorney, as well as workers associated with water quality, public safety, public works, community services, community development and cultural arts. Participants must attend all five workshops to graduate and get a certificate.

"We have had quite a high demand this year," said Rachel Lindsay, the associate director of communications and initiatives for the foundation, which encourages philanthropy and helps provide resources to local charities. "It's a great opportunity for individuals to explore what their interests might be in the community and get them more involved."

The tricky part is that most of the people who attend these types of workshops are already engaged on some level. Some might be absorbed with a single issue like homelessness or crime. Last year, several realtors just wanted to better understand the system for a competitive advantage.

So a basic overview without any deeper opportunity for feedback could come off as stifling.

Lindsay acknowledged that this isn't a graduate course. It's more like a smart high school class with the expectation that attendees continue their involvement later.

"It's really meant to be foundational for community members to start getting involved and maybe trigger some interest in a particular topic so they will dive deeper in committees and take a more active role moving forward," she said.

For Mancuso, it definitely propelled her forward. While she lost her first bid for the council, she's not hiding the fact that she plans to run again.

"When I started, I thought, oh, this will be interesting," she said. "I thought I'd have an open mind and go into it and learn. It was good. They covered the different departments and what their functions are."

Her biggest frustration was not being able to go deeper on some topics or have enough time to ask questions.

"Of course we all had questions about stuff," she said. "I think there's good intentions, but if you go in looking for additional answers or input, you're going to get cut off. It's a presentation. Look at the slides, but don't go too far into our business."

Lindsay said that the surveys were generally positive from last year, and some changes have been made, like an added section on the arts.

"From an overall perspective, there was quite a bit of positive feedback from the first round of sessions last year," she said. "It's a great overview."

Which means we're back to the good-news, bad-news dilemma. There will always be both.

Or you avoid the dilemma entirely by not doing anything.

In this case, at least Laguna is doing something, and that's always good news.

DAVID HANSEN is a writer and Laguna Beach resident. He can be reached at hansen.dave@gmail.com.

 

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