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CACs languish in limbo

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On its face, "Engaging Raleigh's Citizens" is a short, bland report. It emphasizes the importance of "more robust citizen involvement" in city government.

It points to the "central" role of the citizens advisory councils (CACs) in achieving that goal. Who could argue with that? But in the notes of conversations its authors had with city officials, it quotes Hardy Watkins, longtime head of the city's Community Services Department, as puzzled over why, even as Raleigh's population tripled, "civic activism has declined for some reason."

Some reason? One possible reason is suggested by the fact that this May 2004 report to Watkins and City Manager Russell Allen about civic engagement was never even distributed to the 18 CACs themselves. A few CAC chairs who were interviewed received a brief summary. The rest got nothing. No copy was sent to the Raleigh CAC, an official city forum that comprises the 18 CAC chairs. Nor was there any follow-up meeting. "RCAC members, therefore, never discussed its contents," vice chair Mary Belle Pate complained to a City Council committee meeting last week.

That's bad. Because notwithstanding its dear-customer, we-know-you-love-citizens tone, the report's authors, John Kretzmann and Henry Moore of Northwestern University's Institute for Policy Research, clearly understand Raleigh's problem, which is that too many city leaders want citizens involved, but not too involved—and they don't want a lot of ornery citizens expressing their opinions.

Which is why City Council has let the CACs twist slowly in the wind, ignoring their leaders' pleas for recognition and better staff support not just for three years but going back a decade at least. Partly, it's the old neighborhoods-versus-developers thing. (The council majority prefers developers.) Partly, it's a culture of Raleigh's-government-professionals-know-best. Either way, a lot of city officials don't really like it when their constituents turn out in force to protest this or demand that.

And yet, as Allen is noted as saying, Raleigh sorely needs more citizens to get organized and drive the community development process in our inner-city neighborhoods—as only citizens can. But it's "not getting the kinds of connections needed" for that to happen.

Well, you can't have it both ways.

Here's Kretzmann and Moore's take: "At the core of the neighborhoods' capacity to effectively express its opinions is, of course, the CACs."

Kretzmann and Moore's report contains a succinct set of recommendations that, if the City Council followed them, could go a long way toward getting citizens involved in the CACs in the positive ways Allen wants, and also improve their ability to be the city's critical eyes and ears—you know, that pesky "democracy" thing.

First off, it says, the CAC boundaries haven't changed since Raleigh's small-town days, and some now encompass populations of 60,000. That's too much. Try 24 CACs, and redraw the maps.

Second, beef up the CAC staff at Community Services and give them a mandate to work across departmental lines, able to help neighborhood leaders go beyond the routine to tackle crime problems, planning questions, rezoning issues and economic development initiatives. And get the staff to do some marketing. The mailing list for the CACs is 7,000—in a city of 350,000—and according to RCAC Chair Phil Poe, three-fourths of the addresses are "snail mail." It's no wonder most Raleigh residents have no idea the CACs even exist.

Third, revitalize the Neighborhood Improvement Matching Grant program. For two years straight, the council appropriated $75,000 for small grants to neighborhoods but could rustle up applications for just one-third of that. It speaks volumes about how disconnected the city government is from its neighborhoods—and how disempowered the neighborhoods are—that the government couldn't even give the money away. Maybe the CACs could help, the report politely offers.

Fourth, create a Neighborhood Resource Center in city government as an "independent platform" for citizen leaders to form and present their views. Thinking about how effective the Urban Design Center's been in helping shape the downtown revitalization, getting citizens engaged, and yes, even sparking the occasional debate about whether the city's getting it all right—that strikes me as the best idea of all. An NRC could help with the community development organizing the inner city needs. It could also help more affluent neighborhoods do the infill, traffic calming, pedestrian improvement and parks planning they want, but the council resists.

Come to think of it, the Urban Design Center was Allen's idea. As was bringing in Kretzmann and Moore.

But it's no mystery why Allen hasn't pushed the latter's report. It's been two years since the RCAC asked the council for permission to use an unspent $12,000 in its puny budget for marketing. That request was shunted to one council committee, which did nothing, and then to a second—the Budget and Economic Development Committee, headed by Mayor Charles Meeker—which last week was considering whether to hire yet another consultant when RCAC Vice Chair Pate showed them the unheeded 2004 report.

What the heck, the committee was split anyway. Councilors James West and Joyce Kekas were busy arguing that the council should tell the CACs what to do, while Thomas Crowder insisted it's the other way around. So Meeker, ever the mediator, said maybe they should all read the old report before talking about the CACs again in two weeks.

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