Raleigh votes to dissolve neighborhood councils to boost equitable developmentNews
February 6, 2020; CityLab
In 1974, the city of Raleigh, North Carolina, led by its first black mayor, Clarence Lightner, sought to institutionalize citizen participation in city governance by establishing a formal network of 18 Citizen Advisory Councils (CAC ) of area. Council members are chosen by residents and advise the city on proposed development projects in their neighborhoods.
Raleigh is far from the only city to use neighborhood advisory councils in this way. Atlanta and Washington, DC are two other well-known examples. Now, however, Raleigh City Council has voted to eliminate its neighborhood council system, deeming them unrepresentative of residents. The vote was 6-2.
Originally, CACs were envisioned as a way to be more inclusive with residents. The city’s website describes a high level of openness and independence:
Each CAC elects its own leaders and decides on its own activities and priorities. All ACC meetings are open to everyone; however, you can only vote at CAC meetings where you reside. You can attend as an individual or represent your neighborhood organization at your CCC meetings. The CACs are non-partisan. The CACs are the only advisory councils of the city council that are not appointed by the council.
However, in practice, the current system has been described as anything but inclusive. According to Sarah Holder in CityLab, “Critics have long complained that the councils function largely as a stronghold for the Raleigh NIMBYs.” (It’s “not in my garden.”)
City council member Saige Martin described the impending end of the CAC system as urgent if equitable development plans are to move beyond the grip of self-interest. âWe are at a time when the most critical choices, the most difficult issues we face as a city – affordable housing, increased rapid growth, gentrification – are happening more or less overnight,â Martin said. . “We have a system in place that perpetuates this, and we don’t have the luxury of waiting another year or two for a consultant to tell us what we already know.”
Data from a 2018 community survey suggests that despite their good intentions, CACs are falling short of the goal of eliciting broad community participation. Seventy percent of survey respondents had not attended a CAC meeting, while six percent did not recall whether they had attended. A national study by Boston University professors Katherine Levine-Einstein, Maxwell Palmer and David Glick found that neighborhood council systems like Raleigh’s typically amplify a privileged slice of the community.
âThe elderly, men, long-term residents; voters in local elections; and owners are much more likely to attend these meetings, âthe report concludes. âThese people overwhelmingly (and to a much greater extent than the general public) oppose the construction of new housing. These participatory inequalities have important policy implications and can contribute to rising housing costs. “
Levine-Einstein said CityLab that systems like Raleigh’s often present real barriers to inclusive land use planning. âThe really thorny problem with direct democracy when it comes to land use planningâ¦ is that we have seen time and again that it is far more advantageous for opponents of new housing than for supporters of new housing. Because if you’re an opponent, you have that more intense incentive to come forward. Community organizer Zainab Baloch said: “Because people are not so involved in local government, these are the main people that councils will hear about … they are the ones who will be most likely to vote in the next election. . “
Those who engage with CACs see them as essential, and critics argue that the city is making a big mistake in stopping the program. Robert Rice, who chairs an ACC, disagrees that only certain voices are represented. âThis idea that power resides in only a few people who show up at ACC meetings is misleading. Anyone who wants to come is welcome, and they do. Bob Geary, another current president of the CCC, as reported by IndyWeek, considers that the limitation of the CAC system actively reduces the contribution of citizens.
Removing CACs from rezoning does not seem to me to be the first step in improving citizen engagement, let alone citizen participation, in the larger sphere of municipal government, which is land use and development. . Rather, it seems to me to be the last step in pushing the citizens to the stands while the professionals play the game.
Raleigh Mayor Mary-Ann Baldwin observes that this problem goes way beyond her city: âThis is a national crisis. I think people are finally waking up and saying, âWait a minute, we have to do things differentlyâ¦ At the end of the day, we know we can do betterâ¦ a lot has changed since 1974.â Another current leader of the CAC, Joshua Gill, recognizes that this requires more than slow change. âYou can’t keep doing something the same way for so long if you don’t get results. It’s hard to see an institution that I love and support disappear overnight, but if a tough restart is what it takes to improve citizen engagement, I think it’s necessary.
Ironically, Raleigh’s elected leaders did not seek any citizen input in the vote to end this form of citizen input. This has raised the ire of those who are currently working to make the CAC system work. Rice said CityLab, âIt was a secret ballot, a press embargo, no room for any comment. That is not the way the government should work at all.
Raleigh is now seeking to hear the diverse voices of their communities in new ways. The mayor says his approach will be for the city to bring community engagement to people where they are – at the dog park, at the playground, at the bars, outside their front doors. Whether this will work and lead to greater inclusion remains to be seen. Hopefully from the ashes of the CAC, a more inclusive system will emerge. â Martin Levine