The city of Ocoee is opening up the opportunity for its youth to experience firsthand what it’s like to be in government.
Ocoee city commissioners approved unanimously at their Jan. 15 meeting a resolution that establishes the Ocoee Youth Council.
Commissioner George Oliver, a strong supporter of the city’s youth, has been leading the charge of establishing the council since he took office.
“(With) the Ocoee Youth Council, our goal is to, first, educate,” Oliver said. “We want to be able to give kids — high school-aged kids — an opportunity to come into our city to work with our city leadership, to understand our roles … (and) to understand some of the issues that we deal with when it comes to our citizens. Basically, (we’re) giving them an overview as to how local government works, because everything starts with local government.”
Oliver added the council will offer more than just experiencing government. Eventually, he hopes to be able to award scholarships to those who participate.
“We’re giving them the opportunity to collect volunteer hours for school, for graduation and eventually be able to give out scholarships to those kids that complete the program,” he said.
High-schoolers won’t be the only students involved with the program. The selection process of the council members also will involve students from Valencia College.
“(For) the selection process, we’ve decided to utilize the student-government body at Valencia,” Oliver said. “They have a small committee of young adults (who) will come together and interview kids (who apply). ... The kids will apply through their schools, or they can actually reach out directly to us.
“They will have an interview where they will interview with a small panel of college-aged students,” Oliver said. “The students from Valencia will then make a recommendation to our elected officials as to who should serve (on the council).”
Once council members are selected, they eventually will be “attending meetings and setting up projects that will start making impacts in the community,” Oliver said.
Oliver added that council members also will work with city commissioners and staff to enhance their experience.
“That gives them a firsthand look as to how we operate as to our leadership,” he said. “The way it looks is that they will be shadowing us. My responsibility is to make sure that I educate first and act as a mentor.”
Prior to approving the resolution, commissioners discussed concerns over Sunshine Laws and educating the council’s members on how they work.
“What kind of shouted out to me was a concern regarding these meetings having to be in the sunshine,” Commissioner Rosemary Wilsen said. “You’re dealing with youth. I don’t know the legal aspects of this, but when you have a group like this ... everything’s supposed to be done in the sunshine, (and) you’re putting a lot of responsibility on youth to abide by that issue. It’s hard enough for some adults to abide by it, but now you’re dealing with children.”
City attorney Scott Cookson said Florida statutes don’t prohibit youth from serving on a board. He added the resolution the commissioners were addressing at the meeting simply establishes the council, “but it doesn’t lay out what they’re going to do.”
“We would establish the Ocoee Youth Council now, and it would come back to the City Commission to determine what exactly they’re going to do, when they’re going to meet, what are they going to advise on (and) exactly what the scope of that group would be,” Cookson said.
Oliver said there are various other cities that offer youth council programs — some of which have had such programs for many years. He added the structure the city of Ocoee is using for its council is being modeled after councils that have been established in other cities.
“It did not come easy,” Oliver said, referring to approving the resolution to establish the council. “There’s definitely concerns — legitimate concerns — when you take our children and put them in a situation where they may be subject to Sunshine Laws, or not. We had to have that discussion to let the other commissioners know that these programs have existed up to 20 years in certain cities. We’re not going to put our kids in harm’s way, but I am happy that we had come to a consensus and we’ve passed this (resolution) and now we’re able to move forward.”
Although the commission will dictate the specific roles of the council at a later date, Oliver already has an idea.
“They will get together and talk about ... issues that affect them within the city limits,” he said. “They will make proposals or at least have discussion on those things and bring them back to our City Commission and let them know, ‘Here are our concerns, but also here’s some solutions that we’d like to explore.’”