Teens get crash course in government

DOVER — Looking over the shoulders of the students participating in Kent County Levy Court’s Youth in Government Day on Monday, 5th District Commissioner George “Jody” Sweeney wondered if any of them might sit in his seat one day — or perhaps boot him from it.

“Just look at these kids, they’re all very professional-looking, have well-thought-out opinions, they take things seriously and they step right up and play-act in these sessions. It does my heart good to know that this is what’s coming up behind me,” he said. “I just hope none of them run against me!”

For the event, the Kent County Levy Court Administrative Complex on 555 Bay Road in Dover played host to more than 40 high school juniors from several participating schools in the county — and several in Sussex County, as well.

During the mock Levy Court meeting, held in the court chambers, students had the opportunity to discuss topics such as rezoning applications and proposed changes to county policy.

County staff had taken several real petitions and scenarios brought before the county in the past, changing the names and addresses involved, and let the students hash out the decisions.

Alternating groups got to experience the mock meeting in the roles of the seven elected Levy Court commissioners, county administrator and attorney while being coached by actual commissioners and staff members.

Students also had the opportunity to roleplay the discussion from the perspective of parties supporting or oppossing the petition and then vote on a verdict.

In one scenario students had to navigate an application for a conditional-use permit: The property owner sought to operate a motorcycle repair shop in a mostly residential area where the landowner had already been doing so without county permission for several years.

The hypothetical issue was brought to government’s attention by a neighbor’s complaint.

Students arguing in favor of the application pushed the assertion that because it was the resident’s livelihood and he should be allowed to continue.

Acting as Levy Court Commissioners’ president, Polytech student Spencer Price interrogated supporters on their stance.

“He was doing this on his property illegally,” he said. “Is any illegal business OK? Even if it provides for a family?”

Acting as a concerned neighbor, Lake Forest student Robert Callahan brought up potential noise complaints during the public hearing.

“Throughout the day engines would be revving up and making lots of noise,” he said. “There are dozens of houses around it. Supposedly the property owner has gotten approval from his neighbors. But has he talked to the people in the dozens of other houses in the area?”

Despite the dissent, the mock commissioners voted 5-2 to grant the conditional use. But they attached a provision that business hours for the repair shop not run past 8 p.m.

After the session, County Administrator Michael Petit de Mange informed students that Levy Court had acted similarly several years ago when the real situation had come before them.

The YMCA’s Youth In Government program has been giving students in the country an immersive look into local, state, national and international level government operations since the 1930s. Currently operating in 38 states and Washington, D.C., Delaware’s program was founded in 1969.

Continuing the tradition, Kent County staff said the experience is an opportunity for students to witness and participate in public hearings, personnel issues and the public safety aspect of county government while acting in various mock management positions in the Levy Court.

During their visit the students also toured the county’s Emergency Management Call Center and Public Safety Building and witnessed a mock wedding under the authority of the Clerk of the Peace.

6th District Commissioner Glenn Howell, who’s been participating in the event for the past three years, said Youth in Government Day gives the students an experience that can’t be replicated in a classroom.

“It’s a really great experience for young people,” he said. “As a citizen, you hear about things happening at a local government level all the time, but to sit here at a young age and actually go through the motions really teaches them a lot about how this whole process works. Experience is the best teacher.”

To learn more about Delaware’s Youth in Government program, visit ymcade.org/youth-in-government/ or email Anesha Truesdale at aTruesdale@ymcade.org.

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