“Fairmont 101”: Learning Basics of Local Government
Operating a city is a complicated business. Cities provide a variety of services from public safety and road repair to clean water and public parks. There are multiple departments, a mish-mash of funding streams, and oodles of state and federal regulations to observe. The City of Fairmont, West Virginia has launched an interactive program to make sure its citizens understand the city’s role and responsibilities and its processes for serving the public: “Fairmont 101”.
What Is "Fairmont 101"?
When you label a class “101” you generally mean it’s going to introduce the student to the basics of its subject. A, B, C, 1, 2, 3.
“Fairmont 101” is no exception.
Participants meet for two hours once a month to learn about different aspects of Fairmont’s city government. They hear from department heads and tour facilities. City Manager Jay Rogers says the nine-month program starts out with an orientation and history session.
“We go over the form of government we operate under,” says Rogers. “The various departments that we have, the state code that we work under which, the last year and now this year for 101 we had a great discussion about Dillon’s Rule vs. Home Rule, because home rule has been such a hot topic in West Virginia with municipalities. And guide them through then the part about how Fairmont even came to be – taking us from Middletown, Virginia all the way to Fairmont, West Virginia.”
After that first session, participants go on to learn about the roles of city officials, planning and community development, public safety (both fire and police), finance and budget, utilities, building inspections and code enforcement, public works and quality of life.
Rogers got the idea for “Fairmont 101” from a conference he attended. One of the presenters was from the City of Decatur, Georgia, whose “101” program was helping citizens there understand how their local government works.
He says Fairmont suffers from some of the same confusion Decatur deals with – namely the confusion over the jurisdiction of neighboring municipalities, county government and the state.
For example, Fairmont gets calls from citizens wanting action on state road repairs or needing help with an issue that is not within Fairmont’s city limits.
The 101 program helps clear up some of that misunderstanding and educates participants about the City of Fairmont’s specific roles and responsibilities.
Rogers says department heads already see the benefit of having this face to face interaction with citizens.
“And they’ll talk about how nice it was to get that person to understand why we plow the streets in the manner that we plow them,” says Rogers. “That we give first priorities to school routes and hills and people that we know are on dialysis and things like that and alleys are going to be last and now people can understand.”
"I know who to call."
Participants see the benefits, too. Rogers says one woman in the first Fairmont 101 group told him that being more informed is a plus.
“She said, I know how to save time. I know if I have an issue with a vacant, dilapidated house I don’t need to call the city manager, I don’t need to call my council member, I need to call the code enforcement department and that’s where I need to go. She said, before I might make four phone calls and everybody eventually got me to the code enforcement office, but now I know who to call.”
Marianne Moran is in the current Fairmont 101 class. She says she has learned something new at each session. She has been active in Marion County for many years, but sees this as an opportunity to learn more about how the city works.
"A lot of people complain about what the city is and isn't doing and I thought well that's sort of not fair," says Moran. "And I'd like to come and learn about the inner workings of all the departments of the city and just learn how it functions"
Moran has thrown her hat into the ring to run for city council.
Rogers says that type of involvement is a natural outgrowth of the Fairmont 101 program. He says it comes down to finding new ways to engage citizens and help them become more active in their community.
He’s pleased with the variety of people who have signed up – retirees, college students, and people who work in Fairmont but live elsewhere. Some businesses or other entities that work with the city – or hope to work with the city – have also sent some of their people through the program to get a better idea of how the city works.
Rogers says he would definitely recommend that other cities in West Virginia consider offering a “101”-type program.