City discussion to define future of neighborhood groups

With their main funding source due to trickle out in 2009, several neighborhood organizations are going on the defensive as the city starts a discussion over how officials involve citizens in decisions at City Hall.

The City Council is getting ready to reevaluate how officials and city staff collect input from the community on a myriad of decisions. For example, what’s the best way for a resident to let the city know they oppose a variance for their neighbor’s garage? Or how should a small-business owner tell planners that they object to a zoning change across the street from their shop?

A coalition of about two dozen neighborhood boards was preparing a statement asking that the city preserve a neighborhood-level participation process. The groups have a history of success, and “genuine engagement is best accomplished by engaging people in the communities and neighborhoods where they live,” a Jan. 12 draft of the statement read.

The statement is in response to a City Council report that describes how technology, non-geographic organizations or larger, district councils could also be used as an alternative way to engage residents. A meeting is scheduled Jan. 29 at 7 p.m. at Burroughs School, 1601 W. 50th St., to discuss the report and community engagement with the city and Neighborhood Revitalization Program staff.

Mark Hinds, director of the Lyndale Neighborhood Association, accuses the city of failing to engage the community in preparing the community engagement report. He said he’s concerned with how few references there are to neighborhood organizations in the report.

“Neighborhood organizations were not asked to participate in the drafting of the report and are largely ignored as vehicles for community engagement throughout it,” Hinds wrote in a neighborhood newsletter.

It was “like looking at a photo of your entire family and finding that you’re not there,” said Matt Perry, president of the East Harriet Farmstead Neighborhood Association.

Council Member Robert Lilligren (6th Ward) said he’s a big supporter of the existing neighborhood organization system, but he doesn’t think it’s productive or accurate to view the report as an attack.

“I don’t think that is a helpful perspective,” Lilligren said.

The report was simply one of the first steps in the fact-finding and defining phase of the discussion. Its purpose was to inventory the ways in which the city currently engages the community, “and there are a lot of them,” he said.

Other engagement tools besides neighborhood groups include things like public hearings at City Council meetings, citizen advisory boards, city e-mail lists, biannual resident surveys, council member newsletters, community planning meetings, street construction notices, police community relations committees, and the list goes on and on.

Bob Miller, director of the Neighborhood Revitalization Program, agreed with Lilligren, saying the report should not be interpreted as a slight against neighborhood organizations.

“This is a summary of previous work. It says here’s what the community engagement system looks like now,” Miller said. “There’s no gameplan or proposal for what it’s going to look like.”

Now is the time for neighborhood groups to get involved, Miller and Lilligren said. The Neighborhood Revitalization Program has been distributing thousands surveys to neighborhood board members that will be submitted with public comment to the city.

The report recommends the City Council define, clarify and explain what engagement tools should be used for each type of decision. The city is proposing start from scratch, so anyone interested in how they have a say in city decisions should be interested in attending one of the meetings or submitting comments to the city before the Feb. 8 comment deadline, Miller said.

Another recommendation in the report is that whatever system exists it should build trust between officials and the community. “It’s clear from how (neighborhood organizations have) responded to this report that that trust isn’t there,” Miller said.

The Neighborhood Revitalization Program has funded the city’s 77 neighborhood organizations for 20 years. The dollars mostly came from tax-increment revenue from downtown redevelopment projects in the 1970s and ‘80s, but that money is set to run out in 2009.

Miller said neighborhood organizations might not be the most efficient or cost-effective answer, but they are definitely the most effective at involving the most people in a community.

“In it’s simplest form, each of those neighborhood groups has about 15 board members,” Miller said. “That’s about a 1,000 people on the boards. That’s a lot of people involved in trying to make the city better. You can argue whether they accomplish that.”


Reach Dan Haugen at 436-5088 or [email protected]. Jake Weyer contributed to this report.