Where the wastewater goes and other municipal mysteries

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PORTLAND — For anyone just dying to get a tour of the city’s waste water treatment plant, there is a way in: Portland 101, a sort of civics class for adults.

For everyone else, that process, along with recycling, local elections and the other unseen minutiae of daily municipal life can be a whole lot more interesting than they sound, said the program’s organizers at the League of Young Voters.

The 10-session course, Portland 101, aims to get residents to interact with city officials and facilities in a concrete way, often making visits to the department of the day. The spring session of the course begins March 14.

“When I first heard about it, I was like, ‘Oh, this is field trips for adults,'” said Delia Gorham, the League of Young Voters’ program director, who attended most sessions of the fall 2011 course for fun, despite having a volunteer to lead them.

For participants, visits to the city’s police headquarters, ecomaine recycling facility, and yes, the waste water treatment plant, put “the things that you’re connected with every day but don’t … think about” into a new perspective, said Portland Water District public relations manager Michelle Clements, who toured that facility with the course’s 2011 group.

Alexie Russ, a 2011 participant who has signed on to be the spring 2012 course’s volunteer leader, found the sessions fascinating because “they answered all the questions I didn’t know I had.”

The course is still evolving, with this spring marking the third time the League of Young Voters has offered it, Gorham said.

During the upcoming session, participants will meet with some new city departments – Russ is hoping the Department of Health and Human Services and METRO system will host tours – and get seminars on civic leadership and using social and traditional media for community discourse.

Organizers also hope to continue after-class social gatherings that began spontaneously during the 2011 course. Gathering at bars or restaurants near the day’s field trip location gives participants a chance to process what they’ve learned together and make broader connections to others in the community, Russ said.

Everyone who applies to the program is already contributing a lot, Russ said, but they might come already focused on a single issue. The chance to mingle in a social setting after class lets participants learn about what else is being done around the community, she said.

While Russ admits that the League of Young Voters is known for trending towards the political left, organizers hope the 30 spots will represent a diverse swath of the city’s inhabitants, Gorham said.

“Participants don’t have to be liberal to do it,” Russ said.

Potential participants do need to fill out an application to be accepted; the deadline to apply is Monday, March 12. The acceptance process is not particularly competitive, Russ said; as long as applicants are involved in community life, they’ll make it in.

There is also a $30 fee for the course. Scholarships are available.

Because participant diversity is important to the course, Russ said, there is no age limit. Past participants have included teens younger than voting age, immigrants who weren’t yet citizens, young professionals and campaigning mayoral candidates.

Already, it has become one of the group’s most popular offerings, Gorham said.

“We think it could become one of the cornerstones of the league,” she said, and they are working on offering similar programs in areas like Lewiston-Auburn.

Andrew Cullen can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or acullen@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @ACullenFore

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