Photo courtesy of Belen Jesuit Preparatory School Miami-Dade County, Fla.
Youth Commission members (r-l) Jude Bruno, chair; Brenda Abreu-Molnar; Anyssa Chebbi; and Emily Freeman, pose with students and faculty from Belen Jesuit Preparatory School. The boys, members of the school’s new Social Studies Honor Society, were one of three winning teams in the commission’s first “It Ought to be an Ordinance” competition.
The lobbyists approach the lectern. Taking the lead, a spokesman says:
“It’s no secret that today in government we see a lot of political divide at every step of government…. This is one of those rare areas in politics where both sides can really get along, albeit for different reasons.”
If only this were in the halls of Congress. But perhaps even better, it’s at County Hall in Miami-Dade, Fla. The “lobbyists” are a group of high school students participating in the county youth commission’s first “It Ought to be an Ordinance” competition.
The team was proposing that the roofs of all county buildings be painted white to save energy, and that incandescent lighting be replaced by fluorescents or LED bulbs — measures, it said, that could save the county more than 20 percent on its annual electric bills.
“Democrats champion the cause of helping the environment, where as Republicans champion fiscal responsibility,” the Belen Jesuit Preparatory School team’s spokesman said. “This accomplishes both at the same time.”
Belen Jesuit won in the parochial school category. There were two other winning teams — from public middle and high schools.
The idea for the competition came out of a brainstorming session held by the Miami-Dade County Youth Commission’s executive committee on ways it could become involved in county government, according to Jude Bruno, 18, chairman of the commission.
“We plan to provide the presenting schools with technical assistance on perfecting their ordinances,” he said, “and the youth commission will lobby to get their (county) commissioners to bring the ordinance forward to the Board of County Commissioners.”
The youth commission was conceived by Miami-Dade Commissioner Barbara J. Jordan in 2011 to provide high school students with an opportunity to learn and participate in county government.
“It makes me so proud to see how these bright, young minds move forward and develop such an understanding on how local government works,” Jordan said.
Candidates for the youth commission, aged 15 to 18, are nominated by Miami-Dade County Public Schools and, after a screening process, most are appointed county commissioners and the mayor. To qualify, the youths must be in grades 10 through 12, have a minimum 2.0 grade point average, demonstrate a sincere interest and motivation to work for the community, and have a background in community-based activities.
Bruno has those qualities in abundance, said Jeannette Garcia, a special projects coordinator in the county’s Juvenile Services Department and staff liaison to the commission. “He’s a little dynamo,” she said, quickly adding that all of the commission members bring intellect, curiosity and motivation to their positions.
Their questions to the teams in the competition bore evidence of that. “It was incredible the back-and-forth and the kind of questions the youth commissioners asked and the responses the youth gave; I was highly impressed,” said Garcia, who joked that she works “for a bunch of 17 year olds.”
By watching an online video of the commission meeting and competition, it’s readily apparent how mature, poised and professional these students are.
Among the ordinances proposed by other teams was one to ban drag racing on county highways. The team from Jose Marti, a public math, science and technology academy, advocated for a six-day school week: The sixth day would end two hours earlier, and pupils would have an extra week of summer. “The reason for doing this is because the United States is ranked 17th in world education,” the team’s spokesman said.
Another group lobbied for a ban on the sale of medications containing Dextromethorphan to anyone younger than 18.
The winners were chosen by the youth commissioners.
Garcia said no Miami-Dade Youth Commission suggestion has yet made it into law, but its members have actively provided input to the Board of County Commissioners on several issues, including registering their opposition to candy-flavored tobacco.
“In the three short years they’ve been around, they have accomplished quite a bit,” she said. “Right now, we are planning a trip to Tallahassee during spring break so that they can meet with some legislators and get exposure to some of our state leaders, and learn about the governmental process.”
Youth Commission Serves Advisory Role
The Miami-Dade Youth Commission is charged with fostering increased youth involvement in county government, holding forums on issues concerning local kids, recommending community programs beneficial to youths, commenting on proposed legislation impacting children and teens, and submitting an annual report of activities to the County Commission and mayor. It currently has 29 members.
The commission meets at least once a month and is subject to the same Government in the Sunshine and Public Records requirements as any other county body. Each member also meets with the official who appointed them on a quarterly basis to discuss teen and community issues of concern to them.
Jeannette Garcia, who staffs the commission for the county, said it was modeled on the Chatham County (Ga.) Youth Commission, now in its 21st year, whose members frequently attend NACo conferences.