What does it take to run a city? A 10-week course through the first-ever Keller Citizens Academy provided answers. For those of the 14-member class interested in public service, it also served as incentive to get more involved in city government on a local level.
In September 2016, the city convened the Keller Citizens Academy (KCA), a group of residents (including myself), who wanted to take a deeper look into the workings of city government. Class members, chosen by application process, had to be residents of Keller, 21 years or older, and a registered voter. Some were retired; some had young children; some were new to the area.
Mark Hafner, city manager, developed KCA “to provide outreach that would encourage engagement and would build city leaders among our residents.”
Mayor Mark Mathews agrees. “Apart perhaps from becoming a City Council member, there is no other way to get as detailed a look behind the scenes and gain such a comprehensive understanding of how Keller works,” Mathews says. “Our Academy participants were able to see firsthand what makes Keller such a wonderful community, and how much time, effort and resources it takes to keep us moving in the right direction.”
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With a desire to run for city council at some point, Sean Hicks, an Economic Development Board (EDB) member, cites his participation as “a desire to look for other ways to get involved until such point as I feel I am qualified to help my fellow Keller neighbors.”
Hugo Miranda, another EDB board member, says, “I feel that Keller has a real ‘family’ vibe, it truly feels tight-knit and intimate. I felt I needed to do my part and become more involved in the city to continue to foster that atmosphere.”
As a former mayor and city councilman of Tumwater, Wash., Keller newcomer Ralph Osgood feels that because of the knowledge gained from KCA, he is ready to apply for one of the citizen volunteer boards or commissions. “The knowledge and understanding gained from the Academy was tremendous and I look forward to being able to put it to good use.”
The Keller Citizens Academy met for two hours each week for nine consecutive weeks, usually at Town Hall but sometimes at other locations around Keller. Class time consisted of power point presentations, activities and, sometimes, field trips. (Field trips were a class favorite.) Weeks were divided into topics when individual department heads and staff would discuss their roles within the city. Interesting games, role-playing and experiences like a 60-foot trip up in the fire department bucket truck helped the group build camaraderie and develop friendships.
“I was impressed with all of the city staffers who took part in the program,” Kim Segel says. “They are what made the program such a success.” Having participated in a similar class in another city, Segel says, “There was very little in this program that indicated to me it was the inaugural Citizen’s Academy class. It was a great way to learn more about the new area I now call home.”
“City staff did an outstanding job in putting together the presentations,” Osgood says. “I was pleased that we were able to speak informally with various members of the city staff and truly enjoyed that extra bonus.”
Dr. Michael Nasra, principal of Keller High School, adds, “They were knowledgeable about the impact that they made in the city and articulated strengths and potential challenges that we face.”
“Listening to the city directors made me feel proud to live in Keller,” Miranda says. “I could sense that our city manager is very selective about who is hired to represent the various functions of our community. A common trait shared across all the city staffers is their passion for their city functions and their genuine desire to provide the best value in each city service. I felt energized about Keller after every session.”
Member and long-time resident Justin McMurry thinks the interaction between attendees was a big asset to the success of the class. “I know there were plenty of questions and comments by others that I would never have thought to ask, and I hope that the others feel the same way about at least some of mine.” McMurry visits the city’s website and other communications outlets regularly, but feels KCA provided much more information than any other outlet could.
Participants were also required to attend one city council meeting. Most attended the Sept. 20 session that involved discussion and adoption of the 2017 city budget. This proved very insightful considering that one week prior, the group had discussed the budget as part of a Finance/Budget class.
That class not only revealed how the city spends taxpayer dollars, but also that only about 17 percent of resident property tax dollars are used by the city, the rest go to fund Keller schools, Tarrant County, and its hospital, college and water districts.
“I really enjoyed learning about the budget process,” Sean Hicks says, “particularly where the various city revenues come from. When I complain about my taxes being too high I learned it isn’t necessarily the city of Keller that makes me feel that way.”
An Economic Development field trip included a bus ride to six Keller businesses to learn from the owners themselves what brought them to the city. Trina Zais, economic development director, explains that the process of recruiting new businesses to Keller must happen when economic growth is good. Economic development not only includes recruitment, but also retaining and promoting current Keller businesses.
As Mary Peters learned, commercial growth goes hand-in-hand with lower taxes. “Keller is doing a good job of planning the city’s growth and the staff does their best to encourage quality, unique destination restaurants and businesses to come, not only to meet the residents’ needs but also to attract non-residents to come contribute to our tax base.”
During a tour of the Police Department, it became very clear that combining forces with neighboring cities is “the cost effective way of the future” for suburban towns. The Keller Police Department (KPD) partners with area cities to save costs and manpower in jail and animal services and emergency dispatch. KPD partners with Colleyville in municipal court services, the first cities in the state of Texas to merge courts.
“We were very impressed with the numerous ways that Keller cooperates with neighboring cities to increase effectiveness and efficiency,” Rick Peters says.
But saving money isn’t the top concern of KPD; it’s community safety. Mike Wilson, Keller police chief, says, “We pride ourselves in Keller about our relationships with the community. I can’t tell you how many times we catch people off a phone call, ‘Hey, this just doesn’t look right.’ We are successful catching criminals but we’d rather prevent crime.”
The numbers back up the police force’s effectiveness: from 2005 to 2015, the crime rate dropped almost 50-percent, even though the population of Keller almost doubled within the same 10-year period.
The Keller Fire Department (KFD) also touts the success of regional partnerships. KFD belongs to the Northeast Fire Department Association, which joins with several area cities to share costs and manpower for teams such as Hazmat (Hazardous Materials), Explosive Response and Swift Water Rescue. Just as KPD is good at crime fighting, KFD is good at saving lives. Each firefighter on the force is also a trained paramedic, according to Fire Chief David Jones, and the ambulances are licensed as mobile intensive care units, the highest license available for Texas ambulances. And while the number of incidents rises each year, the average response time has dropped.
The class culminated with a “graduation ceremony” as part of the Nov. 1 city council meeting. Afterward, the group gathered to discuss what Mary Peters described as “a fun learning experience.” Each member highly recommends KCA to anyone who calls Keller home.
A second Keller Citizens Academy is planned for fall 2017.
Editor’s note: As suggested by Principal Nasra, KISD is now
interested in adapting the KCA program for high school students.
• Keller 101 (the beginning)
and city management structure
• Finance/Budget process
• Community Development/ Building
Services and code compliance
• Economic Development
• Public Works
• Police Services/NETCOM Dispatch/
Regional Jail and Animal Services
• Fire and EMS services
• Parks and Recreation/ Public Art
• Library Services/ Keller Senior
Center/ City Communications