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New Orleans needs more participation from residents

16th April 2012   ·   0 Comments

By Travis M. Andrews
Contributing Writer

The City of New Orleans needs more input and participation from its citizenry.

At least, that’s the idea behind the Citizen Participation Project (CPP), a grant-funded program aimed at increasing citizen participation based on a model that has been used in several other cities. It’s also the ideas behind the Neighborhood Engagement Office, a local government project that was opened with the charter funds the leaders of the CPP thought they were going to receive. Though slight tension remains between the offices, their goal is the same. And they say they will work toward it, regardless of the cost, something local neighborhood leaders are somewhat wary about.

Citizen Participation Project

In the Fall of 2002, the City Planning Commission requested the CPP be researched and proposed, according to president Keith Twitchell. By the Fall of 2004, a draft model was being circulated, and a pilot was set to launch in 2005.

After Hurricane Katrina, things changed in the city, so the former model wasn’t going to be nearly as effective.

“One of the differences were so many more people were coming out and engaging in these things after the storm,” Twitchell said.

So they began again from scratch, held a summit in 2007 with about 160 people and “developed the basic framework for what they wanted from the Citizen Participation Project, and they organized themselves into nine action teams to flesh out the design of each piece of that framework.”

The second “first” draft was ready in 2008, close to the time the city charter was amended to give the master plan force of law and mandated a system for neighborhood participation, though which program was not specified.

Twitchell and others at CPP expected the funding to help fund their project, but instead it was used to open a new arm of the local government, the Office of Neighborhood Engagement.

Two years in a row, City Council has allocated funding to the City Planning Commission for the planning of the system that the mayor has used for other means.

“It happened in the 2011 budget and appears to be happening in the 2012 budget,” Twitchell told The Louisiana Weekly.

The Office of Neighborhood Engagement, which was created in the local government to increase neighborhood engagement, focuses on putting the information on things such as meeting times and town hall meetings out into the community, but Twitchell said it isn’t enough, that it’s too reactive and too small for the scope of the city as a whole.

“Simply getting the information out is good, but it doesn’t do that much if most of the community doesn’t really have the capacity to sift through that information, find what anyone in any particular neighborhood needs to know … and then also have the opportunity to come together as a community and discuss,” Twitchell said. “It’s like building a tennis court but you don’t put up a net or give anyone a racquet.”

He said what is important is giving citizens the opportunity to get engaged in the early stages of planning, be it lawmaking, zoning, etc.

“We’re not, by any sense, discounting what the Neighborhood Engagement Office is doing in City Hall, but it’s like two sides of a coin,” he said. “You need internal and external.”

Nick Kindel, the CPP coordinator, said one thing the CPP needs to do is inform more people of its existence.

“We need to get a better word out about the Citizen Participation Program,” Kindel said. “We’ve done a lot of outreach, but there are still a bunch of neighborhoods that don’t know about it.”

Because, in the end, it comes down to support and funding, something the Neighborhood Engagement Office has and the CPP doesn’t: “What we are being funded for is to create the system, but funders aren’t going to pay for its ongoing operation,” Kindel told The Louisiana Weekly. “That’s going to have be funded by city government.”

At this point, though, Twitchell said “City government has not contribute a penny to the creation of the model nor have we have asked for it.”

Regardless of what is to come — though Twitchell said he hopes that involves fighting battles in New Orleans politics and government to allow for citizens to have better access to information and a stronger say in city government — one thing is certain for him: “We are doing everything we can to work with Lucas and the neighborhood engagement office.”

The Neighborhood Engagement Office

[Writer’s note: Lucas Diaz, the director of the Neighborhood Engagement Office, spoke with The Louisiana Weekly in an e-mail through the mayor’s director of communications Devona Dolliole.

The office, which employs four people for a city of more than 200 neighborhoods, said “Mayor Landrieu has charged the Neighborhood Engagement Office with the mission to create an environment in which neighborhoods and government proactively work together to set priorities and solve tough problems. To achieve this, our office focuses on creating effective public participation practices within government, within communities, and between government and communities.”

In addition, he said that the office has its own version of the CPP to be released later in this year, pointing out that “the community-driven CPP model has not received funding from the City.”

“The Neighborhood Engagement Office has developed a Citywide Neighborhood Participation Plan (NPP) which is a roadmap towards improving participation practices across city government — for land use/zoning and beyond. It was built on many of the same foundational philosophies that underpin the CPP,” Diaz said.

He said since the office only has four people working for it, they split the work out by focus instead of by geography. Neighborhoods won’t have their own representation in the office, but rather each of the four will focus on the city as a whole, trying to help neighborhood leaders engage.

Neighborhood Response

Katherine Prevost, Bunny Friends Neighborhood Association, who represents a neighborhood in the upper 9th Ward, has her reservations about both programs.

She said the CPP is a product which is being sold, and if they do sell it, it will prove strong leadership. But, of course, as of yet it remains “unsold.” But, more than that, she said they weren’t able to answer specific questions about their model and their plan.

“When you ask questions, you expect answers,” she told The Louisiana Weekly. “They couldn’t give answers.”

She’s also wary of the model being based on what has happened in other cities.

“Just because it works in other cities doesn’t mean it’s going to work in ours,” she said, pointing out that New Orleans is unique in a number of fashions from other cities.

And, though she thinks the Neighborhood Engagement Office is doing a good job, she sees its limitations, and those make her nervous.

“They can only go so far,” she said. “They’re not the Citizen Participation Program. I think we do need one.”

But, most important to her is having a say in it all.

“We should be able to vote on who we want.”

And that’s what it comes down to. Two organizations want to help citizens get involved, but citizens want to choose who helps them get involved. It’s a cyclical problem often seen in government. Who comes up with the solution, and if the offices find a way to work effectively and effectively with each other and the community at large remains to be seen.

Time will tell whether citizen participation is possible.

This article was originally published in the April 16, 2012 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper

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