Latinx youth take on county commissioners’ role for educational experience

BY ZACHARY HORNER, News + Record Staff
Posted 7/18/19

PITTSBORO — Kevin Manzanarez took the gavel in his hand. After some instruction from the people beside him, he banged the table in front of him with the gavel and called the meeting to …

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Latinx youth take on county commissioners’ role for educational experience

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PITTSBORO — Kevin Manzanarez took the gavel in his hand. After some instruction from the people beside him, he banged the table in front of him with the gavel and called the meeting to order.

Manzanarez isn’t currently the chairman of the Chatham County Board of Commissioners — that’s actually Mike Dasher — but on July 10, he served as the chairman of a mock commissioners meeting organized by the Orgullo Latinx Pride youth group in cooperation with Chatham County Government.

Group members played all five commissioners, the board clerk and three citizen roles as county staff and real-life Commissioners Jim Crawford and Diana Hales walked them through the ins-and-outs of a normal county commissioners meeting. Selina Lopez, program manager for the OLP, said the goal of the event was to help her group learn more about local government.

“A lot of them are super interested in getting engaged, they just don’t know how,” Lopez said. “I think this is a great introduction. There’s opportunities for you to be engaged, and that’s something they don’t know because no one tells them or that information isn’t accessible to them. Now, with that in mind, I’m sure I’m going to get lots of questions in the car, back in the office.”

The event was set up by Lindsay Ray, clerk to the Chatham Board of Commissioners. Ray said it was the second time her office has set up something like this — they previously put together a similar mock meeting for a group of Girl Scouts.

“I think all the commissioners agree that citizen engagement is great at any age,” Ray said. “It doesn’t have to be just adults. We want to get children and youth started young in local government. I think a lot of kids learn about federal government in school, but they don’t really learn the importance of local government. We hope that this will get them more interested in it.”

After approving the meeting’s agenda and consent agenda, the “commissioners” — Chair Manzanarez, Vice Chairman Cesia Lopez and Commissioners Berenice Diaz, Oscar Manzanarez and Noemia Mora — heard public comments from Carlos Santiago and Jocelyn Gonzalez. The comments — one about asking for help with a school fundraiser, the other encouraging the board to create a social media presence for the board itself — were developed by county staff.

Two “public hearings” followed, one on banning chewing gum and the other on implementing a required uniform in the school system. Santiago, Gonzalez and Ruby Jacinto each read off sample comments, followed by votes tallied by Clerk Angela Herrera. The chewing gum idea didn’t even get a formal vote, as the “commissioners” seemed to roundly reject the notion.

The dress code requirement generated some discussion, with some members saying they appreciated the ability to express themselves in what they wore, while others said a uniform would cut down on bullying and help every student be on the same level dress-wise. The final vote was 3-2 against, with Kevin Manzanarez and Mora voting no.

The meeting closed with the commissioners evaluating five different projects to fund. They voted for two by dropping Starburst into empty flower vases marked with the project’s description and cost. The winners, by a unanimous vote: $18,000 for an “Adopt-A-Pet Visiting Area” at the animal shelter (something that’s actually going to happen in the shelter’s upcoming renovation/expansion), and $11,000 for a new costume for Sparky the Fire Dog, a mascot that goes to schools with the county Fire Marshal to teach fire safety, and an accompanying fire hydrant robot.

Throughout the meeting, Hales, Crawford and county staff answered questions and dove deeper on the ins-and-outs of local government and commissioners meetings and encouraged group members to participate in their government process.

“County government is where everything happens,” Hales said. “You hear a lot about federal government and state government. But what affects you is state government. And if you’re not running for office, vote. That’s the foundation of this country. Without participation, you’re not fully engaged.”

Lopez said some OLP members had been to a commissioners meeting before, but were a little “lost” on the process. The mock meeting, she said, helped them understand it more.

“This gave them firsthand experience, an opportunity to experience that,” she said. “I think the first contact is super important. I’m super proud of them and super excited and happy that the county commissioners and Lindsay made this happen.”

Ray said she hopes to do more events like this in the future and that awareness of what local government actually does and how important it is spreads.

“The thing that I got from it most the last time was that they could take something back and tell other people about it,” she said. “People don’t ‘get involved in local government unless they’re involved in a committee or if there’s a specific issue they’re interested in. Once they come to a meeting or two, I think they realize, ‘Oh, there’s a lot here I might be interested in, not just that one topic.’”

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