Oro Valley continues to be one of the most engaged communities in Southern Arizona. Let’s face it, we had some meetings this past summer that hosted over 700 people, and that is a prime reason Oro Valley is an award-winning community: we have phenomenal engagement. Very often when people become engaged with an issue they’re passionate about, they show up and attend a public meeting for the first time. Maybe it’s a local board or commission meeting or it’s a town council meeting, but as a resident it can be daunting and frustrating to do that for the first time.
For over 22 years, the town has hosted its Community Academy to help residents learn about the community and local government. My first academy was in 1999, and I have seen it grow and adapt over the years, to the point that the academy has become integral to Oro Valley’s culture of community engagement. This year’s Community Academy begins in early October—and it’s free.
The town’s Community Academy has its roots in the creation of the Citizen Planning Institute in 1997, when two town planners working in conjunction with town council members established to provide residents with more tools to effectively participate within their community and government. The idea stemmed from town council and staff at that time noticing that the average person walking into a meeting often was not aware of, or did not understand, the rules and parameters that the town has to work under. It began as a process to encourage our residents to engage earlier in the planning process, as well as other governmental processes.
Oro Valley was the first municipality in Arizona to try this. From the beginning, the Community Academy has had really good attendance. The town has held it annually since its inception, and what started as a primer in planning and zoning morphed into an overall course on civil discourse: how to make presentations, how to negotiate with a developer and how to get involved eventually grew into covering broader topics. The town began to encourage town council members and the planning and zoning commission go through the course. In the early 2000s it became a requirement for board and commission members to attend and the name of the program was changed to the Community Academy.
One of the big lightbulb moments that happens in the academy is that people start to understand how complex the issues the town faces are. They say, “Oh, I didn’t realize there were so many other factors involved with each issue.” For planning and zoning we could have information from the water utility, public works, police or finance that all get factored into the process. One of the overall lessons of the entire academy is that there’s no single factor that goes into decision-making, regardless of the topic; it’s weighing and balancing a multitude of elements, laws and expectations of the community into a decision.
Milini Simms, the town’s principal planner who facilitates the academy, thinks one of the most unique qualities of this program is that it puts town directors directly in front of the citizens.
“With the Community Academy, you get to discuss important topics with the people who are recommending the big decisions in our community, in an engaging and informal atmosphere,” she said.
The atmosphere also lends itself to an exchange of ideas between participants and staff. While we as staff teach these courses, we also get to learn from our residents about the issues and topics that are important to them. One of the big changes the town has made over the years, based on surveys and feedback from the participants, is to compress the schedule. This year, the academy will begin Thursday, Oct. 3 and run through Thursday, Oct. 29. Sessions will be held twice per week (Tuesdays and Thursdays) from 6 to 8 p.m. in the Hopi Room in the community and economic development building at town hall. The session lineup for this year is:
Thursday, Oct. 3: Town Strategic Leadership Plan
Tuesday, Oct. 8: History of Oro Valley
Thursday, Oct. 10: Town Infrastructure and Services
Tuesday, Oct. 15: Town Water Resource Planning
Thursday, Oct. 17: Planning for Community, Economic Vitality and Future Growth
Tuesday, Oct. 22: Legal Parameters of Zoning
Thursday, Oct. 24: Development Review Process
Tuesday, Oct. 29: Roundtable Discussion
Wednesday, Nov. 6: Graduation with Town Council
As you can see, we talk about planning, infrastructure, water and economic development. These are all hot topics for the Town of Oro Valley. For town staff though, it’s great to watch as residents begin to understand how easy it is to get involved in a small community like ours and make a big difference very quickly. Our residents can, and do, make a difference. Space is limited, so please register by Sept. 27. For more information or to register, visit OVprojects.com. If you have any questions, contact Milini Simms at email@example.com or 229-4836.
Bayer Vella is the Town of Oro Valley Planning Manager.