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Teens Take City’s Reins to Learn Leadership

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Betina Hsieh seemed to take to power right off.

Standing just below the dais in the Santa Clarita City Council chambers, the 17-year-old Canyon High senior appeared bothered by city official Johnathan Skinner as he popped about shooting pictures to commemorate Youth in Government Day.

As “acting” city manager--and Skinner’s boss--Betina wondered: Could she just fire the guy?

Then she got a grip.

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“Gee,” she smirked. “I hope this hasn’t gone to my head.”

Learning about power and civic leadership was the goal for 19 students from various Santa Clarita high schools who shadowed city officials and took on the roles of pooh-bahs in the sixth annual event Tuesday.

They presented reports and even held their own City Council meeting, complete with gavel-to-gavel recordings of the proceedings.

“This gives me an insight into how I would affect people,” said Jessica Trafecanty, a 17-year-old senior at Canyon High who aspires to be an astronaut and a member of Congress.

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To prepare, the students researched issues facing the city and the jobs held by their mentors. They also met with their mentors in advance to get a feeling for what they do.

The carefully scripted day lacked spontaneity. But Councilwoman Jan Heidt tried to compensate for that by injecting a little reality.

Rising to speak during the public comment period of the mock council meeting, Heidt asked for input on the idea of opening a shelter for young people who need safety or a “place to cool off.”

Heidt said she had learned that a $248,000 Federal Emergency Management Agency grant was available. Perhaps Cal State Northridge would donate a temporary building installed after the 1994 Northridge earthquake once reconstruction is completed and it is no longer needed on campus.

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The students realized her proposal was no joke. They rallied around the idea.

“Teens do need somewhere to go,” said Catherine Ann Roether of Valencia, a senior from the Learning Post school, who was taking Heidt’s place on the dais.

Fellow “council member” Brian Nichols of Canyon High suggested that community members could volunteer time for after-school tutoring.

Joshua Smisko, a senior at William S. Hart High School, was not sure that it was such a great idea.

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“I don’t think kids should be able to run away when things get tough,” he said. “Parents should be more pro-active . . . so kids don’t need to run away.”

By the end of the meeting, Heidt was standing in the audience, cheering.

“I want to see you guys stay involved,” she said. “You can be the best ambassadors from the city that we’ve ever had.”

The students came away from the day with a renewed appreciation for the intricacies of getting things done in city government. Some were filled with a new respect for their mentors.

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Betina, for example, decided that her mentor, City Manager George Caravalho, has a thankless job. She recalled arriving for an appointment and found Caravalho taking a conference call about traffic problems. The caller, Betina said, went on for 30 minutes.

“He just has people yelling at him all the time,” she said. “He must be a nice person to handle it.”


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