Week 1 – Part 1: Have you ever wondered what it’s really like behind the scenes at a morgue, not just what you see on TV and CSI? What about how your water gets to your house safely and where it goes after it leaves your toilet? Or maybe how conservation lands are purchased and maintained or how the jail works. If you haven’t thought much about these things, maybe you should, because you pay for these services with your tax dollars, and you ought to know where those tax dollars go. Besides, it’s just really cool to see all those tools they use to do autopsies and to know what goes on behind those government signs and doors that are mostly off-limits to Joe Q. Citizen on a daily basis.
Here is a fabulous way to learn about your local government in southwest Florida and get informed about some of the most amazing things that happen right in your own backyard. LeeGROWS is an initiative started by the Lee County, FL government in 1988 as a way “to inform the citizens about the day-to-day operations of county government“. The government officials in Lee County, FL want you to know how your tax dollars are being spent and what services they provide for you every day.
I was invited to participate in the 163rd LeeGROWS class, which began today, August 5th, 2010. I accepted the invitation immediately when I learned that I would be going on behind-the-scenes field trips to dozens of Lee County government sites and meeting with lots of government staff and officials for five Thursdays in a row – all for FREE (parking, transportation, and lunches included). What a great way to end the summer!
Our self-proclaimed “pathologically punctual”, funny, and organized leader is Booch DeMarchi, who has coordinated the program since 1993. We began our class in the County Commission Chambers in the beautiful old courthouse at 2120 Main Street in Fort Myers where Booch oriented us to the program and the packet of “propaganda” he gave us. He explained that the goal of this program was the provide an “explanation – not a justification” for county expenditures and that we were welcomed and encouraged to ask questions and make suggestions. Our role after five weeks of learning was to “hold county officials’ feet to the fire”.
He then introduced us to our welcoming speaker, Pete Winton, one of three Assistant County Managers who oversees the county’s 25 divisions and departments. Pete was a complete surprise. I expected the usual dry, patronizing government staff speech. Instead I was struck by his honesty, openness, and caring attitude. He talked about how in the age of the Internet and Twitter and blogging, people tend to get bits and pieces of information and jump to conclusions quickly, having lost the ability or the desire to take time to reflect. He told us that this class was an opportunity for us to take time to learn and reflect on what we know about how our government works.
“Government should exist for only one reason,” he said, “and that is to help people.” He challenged us to listen carefully to our tour guides and speakers and realize that many government workers have “chosen public service and are dedicated to helping the people of Lee County”. When tackling challenging issues, Winton emphasized “it’s not about us against you. It’s let’s work together.” Winton said his biggest disappointment in coming to Lee County was to discover that there is “not a sense of community” here as much as in some places. And he talked about the importance of not ignoring long-term solutions for short-term results. His candid and thoughtful welcome speech made me want to see if he was right about other county staff members being so committed to helping the people of Lee County. I was hooked and ready to learn.
The first day tour took us from the county courthouse to the Corkscrew Water Treatment Plant and the Fiesta Village Wastewater Treatment Plant to Lakes Regional Library, Lakes Park, and finally to the District 21 Medical Examiner’s Office (the morgue) where the behind-the-scenes tour really made you think. It was a fascinating day of learning and meeting fellow citizens.
I’ll be sharing pictures and stories from each of these stops on this blog during the next few days… stay tuned for:
Part 2 – Guardians of the Water
Part 3 – More than Books
Part 4 – Fact and Fiction at the Morgue