The CACs in Raleigh present a conundrum. On the one hand, the City Council and the City Manager want citizens to know what they’re doing. They also want feedback from citizens about what they, the Council and Manager, should be doing — don’t they? 

That’s what the CACs — the 19 Citizen Advisory Councils in Raleigh — are for: To “advise” city government, and be a forum for citizens to meet with our elected and appointed officials about the issues of concern in our respective neighborhoods.

But what if some of the CACs, when they meet, should decide they don’t like what the Council and Manager are doing? That can get old pretty fast, especially if you’re an elected official!
And it could just cause some council members to wonder why they shouldn’t get rid of those pesky CACs.

Which is the backdrop to a report about to be issued by a Citizen Engagement Task Force appointed by City Council at the end of 2016. The task force is recommending that the CACs be replaced by a different system of citizen groups, with the new groups to be organized by a board (a citywide Citizen Engagement Board, or CEB) that the Council would appoint and the Manager would staff. 
How the new groups, called CECs (Citizen Engagement Councils) would differ from the current CACs is left deliberately unclear, but one recommendation is that there be fewer of them — between 8 and 12 CECs, as opposed to the current 19 CACs. 

Two other key differences that I perceive:

1) The current CACs are citizen-organized and run. The new CECs would be subject to greater control by the Council and the Manager’s staff, according to rules that the CEB would devise and the Council adopt. 

2) The current CACs have a defined role in rezoning cases, which gives citizens a window into growth and development issues; the CECs would have no such role. The CACs’ role is advisory, and it includes the opportunity for any citizen, after a developer presents his case for an up-zoning, to express an opinion by voting aye or nay. The final decision, of course, rests with City Council. The task force recommendation is that developers present their case to citizens at a meeting run, not by a CAC, but rather by the Manager’s planning department, with the department collecting and summarizing citizens’ comments, if any. The opportunity for a citizen-run meeting and for citizens to vote would be eliminated.

In sum, I think the CECs, as envisioned by the task force, would be a useful vehicle for city government to “get its message out” to citizens, but not as useful when it comes to  citizens getting a message to city government.

The task force report will be given to Council tomorrow. Apparently, no action will be taken right away, and the report may sit on a shelf until the Council elections have come and gone this fall.

After that, who knows?

I began by citing the obvious tension when elected officials create citizens’ groups that may criticize them and when appointed officials are asked to meet with citizens groups that may or may not like what they’re doing. 

For this reason, the CACs, though they’ve been around since the 1970s, enjoy little support from most Council members today, and periodic efforts by the CACs to get some help from the city with marketing, for example, have fallen on deaf ears. (Our District D Council member, Kay Crowder, District B member David Cox and at-large member Russ Stephenson are strong CAC supporters, however.)

Yes, the Council funds the CACs — to the tune of $1,000 a year, money that can’t be spent unless the Manager’s staff approves it. There is no money for serious outreach — no TV ads, no mailings, not even a mention in the utility bills — or to tell residents that the CACs even exist, or that every resident who comes to a meeting is automatically a “member.” What marketing does exist is done by the CAC officers, who are volunteers.

The point I want to make is that the CACs are far from perfect, and can be strengthened in many ways. 

But eliminating them and starting over with groups that the Council and Manager control is unlikely to improve things. 

With this in mind, I drafted a letter to Council that I’m hoping other CAC officers will join me in signing. (CAC officers meet monthly, and this month’s meeting is Wednesday night, when this will be discussed.) Here’s the draft:

“The process of citizen engagement in Raleigh has evolved with the city’s growth. In 1974, as Raleigh’s population soared past the 100,000 mark, Mayor Clarence Lightner led the formation of the first Citizen Advisory Council, asking citizens across the city to step up and help. A year later, Lightner took pride that the CAC was integral to every aspect of Raleigh’s government, from community development to better bus routes to recommending the first bike lane in Raleigh on Ridge Road. The CAC advised on zoning cases, worked on the first comprehensive plan and helped to create the Downtown Housing Improvement Corporation (DHIC) for affordable housing.

“Today, as Raleigh’s population nears 500,000, we have 19 CACs established across the city, but with the same goal as Lightner’s: Helping interested citizens to realize the democratic ideal of government “by the people and for the people.” Through the CACs, citizens are in continuing discussions with every department of city government, so that as needs arise in the police department, say, or in water and sewer services, there’s a shared perspective on what to do and how to do it. 

“As CAC officers, we welcome the report of the City Council’s Citizen Engagement Task Force and concur with its conclusion that engaging citizens in the work of self-government is a far more complex task now than it was when Raleigh was small enough that “everyone could know everyone else.” The task force report contains a lot of useful ideas, some of which CAC leaders have advocated for years. The report did not specify, however, how these ideas should be implemented, leaving those details to a new Citizen Engagement Board that the Council could create. 

“We’re receptive to the idea of a CEB, depending on its mandate. If its purpose is to draw more citizens into the work of self-government, good. But there’s an inherent danger whenever a board is inserted between the elected and appointed officials of city government, on the one hand, and the citizens they serve on the other. Of critical importance is that the board’s mission be to empower citizens in their relationship with decision-makers, not to keep them at arm’s length. For that reason, we think the membership of an effective CEB board should be drawn from the ranks of people who’ve shown interest in Raleigh’s major vehicle for citizen engagement since the days of Clarence Lightner, namely the existing CACs.

“It was therefore concerning that the task force didn’t reach out either to CAC leaders or to any of the thousands of people who’ve participated in CACs in recent years. The Citizen Engagement Task Force, in other words, made the mistake of failing to engage with citizens. We caution against the creation of a Citizens Engagement Board if it would operate in a similar fashion.
“Citizen engagement in Raleigh can be strengthened, and we are eager to participate in the work of making it stronger. We think the first step to doing so is to recognize the historic role of the CACs as principle forums for citizens to be involved, review the work of CACs with city agencies, and commit to maintaining the CACs’ viability going forward while bolstering their ability to be as effective in Raleigh’s future as they have been in the past.

“Thanks for your attention to this important issue.”

And thank you if you’ve read to the end. I want us to discuss the task force report at our HCAC meeting on Thursday — and hear your thoughts, if you’ve been coming to CAC meetings for awhile, about how the system works and how it might work better.

We’ll be meeting upstairs in the Cameron Village Library, 7 pm, Thursday, April 20.
– Bob Geary, HCAC chair