Many of the people who run for, and win, municipal offices are not career politicians. They are every day people who want to make a difference in their communities, according to Susan Hockenberry, executive director of the Local Government Academy, or LGA.
“Serving in municipal government is like nothing people have done before,” said Hockenberry. “It’s very rewarding, but it can be very demanding as well.”
Those demands can range from balancing a budget to understanding zoning laws, which are sometimes not the lynchpin issues that got a candidate elected in the first place.
“When they get in a position where they’re governing, sometimes they aren’t in a position to pursue those items specifically right off the bat, but need to do whatever needs to be done to govern,” said Hockenberry.
The nonprofit organization was founded in 1983 in response to the changing Pittsburgh economy. The founders of the organization saw a lot of new faces moving into local politics, and they wanted to make sure those newly elected officials were prepared for the tasks ahead of them.
The LGA’s 45-hour course is available to any newly elected official in Southwest Pennsylvania. Volunteer teachers and speakers cover the powers and duties of local elected officials, budgets and finance, public safety, infrastructure, leadership, ethics, and more.
Hockenberry and her team typically begin reaching out to candidates after the May primary election, encouraging them to participate in the LGA if they are elected. After the election, they send a personal invitation to every newly elected official in the mail.
Hockenberry said the elected officials themselves are not the only ones who benefit from LGA’s services.
“More importantly, it’s a benefit for the communities they serve, because they are more knowledgeable of what their duties and responsibilities are, and more able to effect change and make a difference in their communities,” said Hockenberry.
Notable alumni of the LGA include Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald as well as Pittsburgh City Council representatives Bruce Kraus, Natalia Rudiak, Ricky Burgess and Daniel Lavelle. The highest ranking public official to have attended the LGA is Jack Wagner, former state senator and auditor general of Pennsylvania.
“The overarching response that we get is how much more effective people felt their terms of office were, because they weren’t just finding themselves up there having to make decisions, having to operate under processes they had never heard of,” said Hockenberry.
She also said it’s not just first time elected officials who want to participate in the course.
“We get some folks who want to come back for a subsequent year, because after they’ve been in office for a little bit, they have more context for what they’re learning,” said Hockenberry.
This year’s course begins on Nov. 23 and runs through the begining of March.