This is one in a series of articles highlighting how Texas counties are sharing the county story with the public.
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The Texas Counties Deliver public information campaign aims to improve the public’s understanding of county government and the essential services it provides Texans. Texas Counties Deliver.
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Comal County Educates Public
An informed electorate promotes responsible government, yet many Texans today seem less informed than ever about how county government works. Comal County is doing something about it.
In 2013, the county kicked off a community course on county government taught annually by county officials and staff.
The nine-week course, titled “University of County Government: Education, Transparency and Public Service in Texas,” brings 25 community residents together one night a week to learn the basics of county government.
“The format of a small group setting is the most important because it encourages discussion instead of just lecturing,” said Renee Couch, TAC vice president and Comal County treasurer. “The participants feed off each other’s questions, which in turn allows each of us to give a great presentation.”
During the sessions, county officials and department heads deliver presentations covering county government’s structure and function, and the responsibilities of each officeholder. Participants also learn specifics about Comal County government and the important services it provides the community.
“A lot of people just don’t know what county government does. In fact, county government is the least understood form of government,” Comal County Judge Sherman Krause said. “People deal with cities and know what they provide. They know state government. They know federal government. But people don’t really think too much about what county government is responsible for and why they have county government.”
Inspired by the success of the Comal County Sheriff’s Citizens’ Academy and New Braunfels City University (developed by the county seat), Krause said he and other Comal County office-holders decided to build on those models to fill the information gap.
The three-hour sessions feature field trips, presentations and time for Q&A. During one session, the class takes a field trip to the county’s district courtroom to hear from Comal County District Attorney Jennifer Tharp. Tharp said the excursion is valuable to attendees. “I find that the participants have a very limited idea of what my office handles and, frankly, how many cases we handle. Likewise, the participants also do not realize the extent of county services out there working on their behalf. Often county residents have no idea what authority a county does and does not have.”
Tharp said county government often relies on citizen participation, whether it be on a committee, a focus group or an appointment, and “having informed residents benefits our entire community.”
Tharp said she highly recommends other counties consider creating their own county university. “Knowledge is power, and an informed citizenry is the best type of citizens for which we can hope,” she said. “As your county grows and has capital improvement needs, these participants are often your best and biggest advocate for change.”
Top Tips for Creating a County Government Course in Your County
Explain the Big Picture, then Focus on Your County – Course sessions should cover county government’s structure and functions in general, but also dive into the specifics about your county. Comal County’s course covers what the state constitution and state statutes require and then expands to explain how Comal County complies with those requirements. “These are Comal County residents and they want to hear about Comal County,” Krause said.
Supply Valuable Reference Materials – Provide speaker handouts and a course handbook to participants. Comal County’s handbook breaks down each session in the nine-week course and includes two pages of information about each county office.
Nominate or Recruit Participants – There are multiple ways to recruit participants for your course. Commissioners court members could nominate them. You could also announce that the county is seeking course applicants via the local news media, on your county website and through social media.
Seek Across the Board Support – For the project to be a success, you must rely on participation by all elected officials and county department heads. “You can’t just have a select few do everything,” Krause said. “You have to get them involved from the beginning.”
Keep Sessions Interactive – Include time for Q&A during each class presentation and schedule show-and-tell field trips to county facilities. “You need to re-emphasize the lessons learned,” Krause said. “Don’t just put them in chairs and stand up and talk to them. Get them up and involved and engage them more.” Comal County participants take a tour of its historic courthouse and take a field trip to its district courtroom.
Collect and Respond to Feedback – Use evaluation forms to collect information from participants about speakers and other course details. Use the feedback to improve the course.
Go for It! – Don’t let perfection be the enemy of the good. Krause said that as they put their course together there came a time when they had to decide – kick it off now or wait until it’s perfected? “My advice is you can’t come up with all the answers. Just put something together and get it started,” he said. “You can make improvements as you go.”
Example Course Schedule
Comal County follows this schedule for its University of County Government course.