If This is How it Starts: Report Back from the Citizen Participation Process Summit

Tonight, the “Citizen” Participation Process (CPP) Summit opened on the 11th Floor of the Pan-American Life Building in the Central Business District. Though this event was free with an advance registration, only about 150 people showed up in a city of nearly 300,000. This pales in comparison to the UNOP’s Congress Events, to which thousands flocked and where efforts were made to include displaced persons via teleconference.

Of course, civic participation may not be for everyone, but everyone must be offered the time and space to contribute and be a part of the decision making process from the beginning—for everything that starts at this summit will influence subsequent dialogue.

A potential pitfall is that residents who miss this summit due to conflicts or not being informed will not be viewed as legitimate—in effect people could become a victim of what’s known as “Founder’s Syndrome.” Or perhaps more simply, that certain attendees can say they were at the summit and can use this for political and personal power in influencing others in decision-making. Greater inclusion and

Some of these concerns were brought up throughout the night session. The session included questions to key note speaker Judith Mowry, a representative from the formalized Office of Neighborhood Involvement in Portland, Oregon.

Mowry’s last sentence–“Basically the world is run by those who show up”—showed considerable insensitivity to the context of post-Federal Flood New Orleans and to the logistics of low-income people. It makes invisible the difficulty of many New Orleanians who might work two jobs, have night shifts, or other conflicts and may not be informed, as stated above, especially by mass emails or by direct connection to a neighborhood association. (This is a pattern: The primary way to stay informed and engaged with the Master Plan and Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance process, which the City Council approved to put on the November ballot for popular vote on Thursday, is through its website. This is unacceptable in New Orleans, a place known for its digital divide and acquisition of news through those old-timey mediums like radio.)

In response to Mowry, Brad Ott, a health patient advocate and resident of New Orleans, immediately spoke to the necessity to involve the approximately 200,000 people who are not present. In addition, he later added how those directly affected by land grabs, such as the destruction of public housing and now the imminent VA-LSU teaching hospital plan for lower Mid-City—were and are currently left out of the decision-making process. The first public meeting on the teaching hospital came last month, more than two years since plans began. Ott’s determination is then that the CPP, as a burgeoning formal body, could put certain current issues on hold until a well established and inclusive participation process is in place.

After questions for Mowry, facilitators then continued the agenda wherein each table at the summit had two models of citizen participation. There were six models total across the participants. My table had models #2 and #5. The models described “Structure,” “Scope of Focus,” and “Funding.”
[Note: It should be mentioned that these models were meant to ignite discussion and feedback, not what the coalition organizing this summit actually want to see.]

#2: Essentially created a three-tiered system beginning with neighborhood groups, then to district coalitions, then to a Citizens Voice Council, wherein the scope was largely developmental and the funding decision-making power remained in the hands of the city council and mayor who would have to respond “in some way” to the Voice Council.

No one at my table thought this model would improve anything in the city. From their comments, it seems this would function largely as the system already does but formally, by granting authority to neighborhood associations alone and not including more informal community groups. In general, in all models, there were no specifics as to a standard of how decisions would or should be made—consensus? simple majority? two-thirds majority?—from the neighborhood association level all the way up to a Voice Council.

In my view, this tiered system continues the concentration of power into fewer and fewer representatives that is a mirror of our government, which we all know is largely out of touch with the priorities of its residents. We need to flatten out the decision-making power to include as many people as possible that will still be functional.

#5: Somewhat like #2, but more broadly inclusive and distinct in the fact that participants in the process could have decision-making power over the priorities of the budget.

We appreciated this distinction, but the process still remained vague. I noted that I would put more faith in this model if the budget priorities were determined in a city-wide ballot constructed like run-off elections in Ireland: if there are five priorities (or candidates) then you rank them from 1 to 5 for the ones you prefer (or give no rank for things you disagree with). The ranks are given weight in the ballot count such that a #1 priority would get 5 points, a #2 priority 4 points and so on…

Of course there could be thirty items on the ballot, each of which would have a paragraph description of what they mean…for this to be efficient you’d have to extend the number of days people can vote and you’d have to have an informed electorate.

Of course, in the larger analysis, even the word “Citizen” is problematic as it precludes migrant workers, incarcerated people and others who are and will be residents of the city and are affected by the decisions made in this process. Resident was preferred. People unable to vote, such as those under 18, should also be considered in the dialogue.

When groups reported back on other models, we had no concept of the context from which their comments sprung, whether critical or in support. The gap in communication and lack of a “crib sheet,” or list of participation process definitions, only produced confusion. For instance, in model #5, what is a municipal assembly? Who comprises it and how many people are on it? What is it accountable to and how does it make decisions?

I recommend any information, including all 6 models, intended to be commented back to the entire group should be included in the packet so all participants can read them and understand the comments in context.
We wished that we had a greater introduction and understanding of different models run around the country—their successes and problems—before engaging and brainstorming in this process.

Lastly, these are my initial observations and this entire process is new to me so I have much to learn, but I see pitfalls in the concentrating of power all around. I’m open to dialogue on this, please add your thoughts as comments.

Published in: on July 13, 2008 at 7:38 pm  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , ,

New Orleans’ Update

This is a letter I recently wrote to a friend also on the Gulf Coast as an update on the situation in New Orleans. I am a slacker and this conveniently covers much of what I was planning to write. Will add more as time and internet access permits.

New Orleans is transitioning in its political scope, looking at long-term solutions, such as the office of the inspector general and the successfully tacked on independent police monitor (which i helped do some research on and was in the council chambers today to support). Today, the city council also voted in favor of this vague Master Plan zoning, which is as of yet an unwritten but mandated plan that has to be reviewed at least every five years and no more than once a year. So it’s weird because there are so few safeguards to prevent the zoning plan from taking away individual property rights like the VA-LSU hospital plan in mid-city…you know, that old eminent domain, for the greater good thing. But the zoning plan is a positive for some folks in that it will be a city-wide comprehensive standard that would draw business and development investment into the city, something that many argue is holding back the full recovery.

These are both proposals to add to the City Charter, which can only be changed through a popular ballot vote….to be held in the fall. But it seemed the hardest part was getting them through the city council (and getting the support of the police orgs, which was somehow miraculously done).

Also, there is a burgeoning citizen participation process being developed and I’m attending the inaugural summit this weekend. I’m still ruminating on my role in this whole process, kind of trying to get advice from my landlady who should have gone but doesn’t want to. I will try to bring my full self and that’s all I can do.

Other than that, I’ve been going blueberry picking in MIssissippi several weekends and been making tasty smoothies for these ninety degree days. I was just told, not unusually, that I had something, a lot of something in my teeth–blueberry skins indeed.

Tearing it Up

Before I became politically engaged/concerned, etc, I was a very big sportsaholic.  In fact, I went to school at first to become a sports journalist.  After interacting with the world in a large city, seeing the destruction and inhumanity of governments and those motivated by profit, I put that rather privileged occupation into the also rans of my life campaign.   But every now and again the nostalgia and sense of superficial kinship between me and sport crops up.  Here is an ode to the recent Roger Federer–Rafael Nadal tennis final at the Wimbledon Championships in England.

—————

In the end, there were tears. A lot of tears, all around. Nadal shedding some in joy, at long last taking Wimbeldon with a mastered performance over the grass court master. Federer, after leaving the court, nearly breaking down with John McEnroe asking him about the match, too hard to describe how much it hurt. A hug between them and McEnroe’s hand on Roger’s shoulder as he walked away—both having been in the great matches of all time and lost. Nadal’s mother & coach still teared up in the stands. Perhaps even the Spanish Royalty, who Rafael climbed up and visited after rejoicing with his family, choked up.

And the tears, no doubt many in the crowd for Federer, for Nadal and for all of tennis were unabashedly welcome and deserved in perhaps the greatest men’s tennis match ever played. It was the longest Wimbledon final in history, clocking in at 4 hours 40 minutes amid three rain delays that left the last games in near darkness. From the fourth set tiebreak that ended 9-7 in Federer’s favor until Nadal’s 9-7 triumph in the final fifth set, each player had an answer for the other. Federer’s serve got him out of break points late, Rafa’s unfathomable blistering two-hand backhand crosscourt passing winners from five feet behind the baseline mesmerized everyone. And this against one of the game’s best volley players in Federer. Strength, power, speed, spin, but most of all, as Boris Becker once said, in the fifth set it’s all “heart.”

Both men left everything they had for the world to see—so much so that all they had left were tears—and received victory and defeat with such grace and dignity that there may never be a moment in tennis that crystallizes into all that is genuine, elegant and remarkable about the game. At least, we hope, until next year.

Published in: on July 13, 2008 at 7:05 pm  Leave a Comment