Class gets first-hand lesson in government
By James Peacemaker, Jr. Managing Editor
Dec 16, 2013, 13:18
JAMES PEACEMAKER JR./HOPEWELL NEWS/NEWS-PATRIOT Colonial Heights High School students Ashley Schoot, Ethan Yanes and Zach Criswell, City Clerk Pamela Wallace, student Malik Carlton, Mayor C. Scott Davis and student Jacob Drumheller hold a mock CIty Council meeting.
COLONIAL HEIGHTS — Students recently learned an important lesson about government that sounds a lot like the classic Rolling Stones tune: “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometime, you find you get what you need.”
Government Day recently gave Colonial Heights High School students a chance to tag along with city officials to learn about what they do. The day ended with groups representing each department giving presentations on what they would like to spend money on, while students portraying City Council had to approve or reject proposals due to a limited amount of money to spend.
It was a lesson not only on how government works, but a lesson in financial responsibility.
Projects ranged from fixing roads, starting city-wide wireless Internet access, building a dog park and creating a place to rent canoes and kayaks. City Council had a limit of $5 million to spend, while the projects presented totaled more than $8 million.
“I know you’re going to be very judicious in your decision making, how you decide to best cut up that pie,” said City Manager Tom Mattis as he started off the budget requests.
Some of the presenters had more realistic goals, such as repairs to Temple Avenue where it resembles a rollercoaster from being built over an old landfill. The council was given the option of spending money on a temporary repair or a much more expensive permanent fix.
Another request that was more realistic was the creation of a fire station near Southpark Mall.
“The reality of this may come at some point,” said Mayor Scott Davis, who helped guide the students through the rules of order.
Other proposals included a water tower, an addition to the police department, new computers and cameras for police cars, and a computer training center for city staff and the public.
The mock council scrutinized every dollar that was requested.
When a proposal for a recycling program at the high school came up, Malik Carlton, who pretended to be mayor, asked “Have you approached the School Board about the recycling bins?” When the answer was no, he replied abruptly, “You should start there.”
Students listen as issues are discussed by the mock city council.
“I like him. He’s direct,” joked Mayor Davis, “Not worried about the next election or anything.”
One of the plans that took up a large part of the two-hour mock council meeting was presented by Lizzy Kunde.
She wanted to spend $500,000 to transform the Colonial Heights Library into a bookless building and to host a book-burning party to celebrate and promote the change to e-books.
“To raise awareness for our brand new digital library, we’re thinking one football game, maybe homecoming, we’ll have all our books out on the field and we’ll have vendors, all manners of things, I suppose, and we’ll have of course the mayor to do the honor of burning our books,” she said to laughs all around.
The plan drew numerous questions from the mock council members.
“Are you aware that there are many institutions that look for donations such as books?” asked Jacob Drumheller, who portrayed a council member.
“We’ve already paid for these books, now you want to burn them?” Carlton asked.
“Would you be willing to take this money and not do the book burning?” asked Council member Ashley Schoot.
Mayor Davis used this as an example of how sometimes small items can take a disproportionate amount of time for discussion.
“Did you notice ... how much time we spent on a half a million dollars?” compared to other proposals that would cost a lot more, Davis said.
He said that is not uncommon at regular council meetings.
“There are many times when there are small issues that take up a whole lot more time because they have impact to people and what they enjoy rather than what is important sometimes of actual tax dollar figures,” Davis said.
He noted there are sometimes fewer people who come to meetings on the entire city budget than there are who come for someone requesting extra cat licenses.
The students eventually whittled down the spending list and prepared to vote on the plan as a whole.
“Right here is the classic example of what the council often faces. ... Part of the compromise of being on council is you have to vote for the package. ... As long as there are more things that you like than you don’t like, then you are usually going to vote for it,” Mattis said.
In the end, the vote was unanimous to approve the budget, drawing applause from city leaders and the 29 students in council chambers.
Student give a presentation requesting funding from City Council.
“It’s fascinating that ... a lot of the things you talked about here today is the things we talk about,” Mattis said.
Vice Mayor Diane Yates, who taught government at the high school for 31 years, said Government Day was brought back last year after taking a nearly 10-year hiatus.
She said the day was important not just to show how government works but also to show its limitations.
“We try to make the kids understand when you’ve got X amount of money, and X amount of people wanting that money, ... you’ve got to figure out what’s the best bang for the buck, and that’s not always easy. ... It’s not always popular,” she said.