The History of LeeGROWS 1988 -- Present
ORIGINS – During the summer of 1988, Lee County Administrator Jim LaRue called a meeting with his key staff ( Russ Blackburn, David Graham and Anita Flaitz ) and challenged them to develop a list of actions and programs that could be done to improve the image and reputation of county government. A couple of weeks later, the committee gave La Rue just such a list. The committee emphasized the need for county government to "get the word out" to the citizens of all the good things going on within the county. Thus, Government Day was tried. The county's departments set up tables and booths at the Edison Mall. With fliers and pamphlets in hand, staff was trying to be both visible and available to the citizens. This form of communication with the public was deemed unsuccessful as most individuals at the mall were more interested in shopping and the food court than in talking to county bureaucrats. So the committee went back to their list and thought they would try to implement a citizen academy – type program. The committee worked out the details and David Graham came up the name… LeeGROWS (Government Resource and Orientation Workshop Series.) The committee convinced La Rue to "give it a try." Consequently, on Thursday, September 8, 1988, the first LeeGROWS class of 18 citizens began by meeting in the Commission Chambers (now know as the First Floor Conference Room) in the County Administration Building in downtown Ft. Myers.
PROGRAM'S PURPOSE -- The purpose of LeeGROWS has remained the same over the years, inform the citizens about the day-to-day operations of county government. It is not designed to nor has it ever attempted to discuss and debate the governmental issues of the day. Examples, What is the role of government ? Do the citizens want to pay more taxes for more government or pay fewer taxes and get less government ? What is the proper balance of maintaining the environment while developing the land ? Water restrictions, when and how much ?
LeeGROWS, however, has talked about the maintenance of roads, parks, facilities and future construction of facilities, the day-today services and programs available to all citizens and what it all costs. For anyone who wants to debate and discuss the major political questions of the day, LeeGROWS never has and never will "scratch your political itch." The program has always tried to explain the County Government's attempt to supply daily governmental services to the citizens. LeeGROWS has been a hands-on program designed to examine the daily operations of county government. Simply put LeeGROWS has tried to explain "where the money goes".
PROGRAM MANAGERS --
September 1988 to April 1992 - David Graham
May 1992 to November 1992 - Julio Avael
January 1993 to 2010 - Booch DeMarchi
January 2004 to March 2014- Denise Sabatini
HALL of FAME - Over the years, many citizens considering a run for local office have gone through the LeeGROWS program. The feeling was that the program would give them a good look at how local government works in general and if they were specifically interested in being a county commissioner, it would be a great "crash course" in the daily workings of county government. Of the individuals who later ran for office, some won and some lost. Some of the individuals who did go on to become an elected officials are:
John Albion – Lee County Commissioner
Vicki Lopez – Wolfe – Lee County Commissioner
Carole Green – Florida House of Representatives
Wayne Edsall – Bonita Springs City Council
Joe Burgess – Lee County Mosquito Control District Board of Commissioners
Leigh Frizzell Hayes – 20th Judicial Circuit Lee County Judge
James Green – Lee Memorial Health Systems Board of Directors
David Graham – School Board of Lee County
Tom Babcock - Fort Myers Beach Town Council
Jim Cole - Matlacha Pine Island Control District Board of Commissioners
Although not elected officials, 5 LeeGROWS participants were selected in later years by the Lee County Board of County Commissioners as the Lee County Paulette Burton Citizen of the Year. They are:
Bill Davis, Ed and Sylvia Blue, Judy Jenkins and Steve Personette. Paulette Burton, the award's namesake, also attended LeeGROWS.
PROGRAM CHANGES OVER THE YEARS -- A comparison of the program from the early years to the present:
|| 1988 – 89
| hours per daily session
| weeks per class
| annual classes
SOME THINGS NEVER CHANGE – While some aspects of the program have changed with the times, many things have remained the same. 1988 - 89:
A) There is no admission cost or registration fee.
B) Free parking and complimentary lunch are included each week.
C) LeeGROWS has been conducted on Thursdays. Additional classes have been conducted on Tuesdays.
D) Publicity for the program has always been by word-of-mouth and referral from previous participants.
PARTNERSHIP PROGRAM – Most of the program is financed by county tax dollars. However, the partnership program does allow individuals, groups and/or organizations to assist LeeGROWS in funding this program. A financial goal of the program has always been to keep LeeGROWS as inexpensive and cost effective as possible. The spirit behind the partnership program is that for every privately donated dollar spent on the program, a public tax dollar is saved. The partnership program began in 1990. Partnerships have ranged from $ 5 to $ 250.
AWARD WINNING PROGRAM – In 1989, the LeeGROWS program received a National Association of Counties (NACO) award. NACO is an organization that tries to promote responsible, efficient and cost effective government at the local level. In awarding the Lee County Board of County Commissioners with the award for LeeGROWS, the certificate sited it as an "innovative and effective program to communicate with the general public."