Citizens Led Engagement or Council Oversight?

Last fall City Council voted to form a Citizens Engagement Task Force. I voted in favor of this effort with the assumption that the task force would provide recommendations for improving our Citizens Advisory Councils.

I have attended and participated in countless CAC meetings. Citizens Advisory Councils are grassroots, citizen driven organizations. Historically, the City has provided them very minimal resources: often just a place to meet and staff members to provide information on various topics such as neighborhood crime, parks and recreation, and pending zoning cases.

Often there is no sound system making it difficult for the audience to hear during large meetings. There is no video equipment to record meetings. There is no standard mechanism for efficiently voting on zoning cases – most often just a show of hands and no validation that those voting actually live in the CAC district. And, if there is a large turnout for a controversial rezoning case, then all bets are off because these deficiencies become greatly magnified.

My hope in voting for the Citizens Engagement Task Force was for recommendations to address these deficiencies. I support without question CACs because of their inherent nature of being citizen led, citizen directed organizations.

But, the task force’s recommendations go way beyond addressing deficiencies in the support that the City provides CACs by recommending an entirely new organization that is led and directed by City Council and City Staff. The proposal is to create a new Community Engagement Board – essentially a group appointed by City Council to oversee 8 to 12 Citizen Engagement Councils (in contrast to today’s 19 CACs).

This system is clearly designed to replace Citizen Advisory Councils. According to the recommendations, “The complete system of CECs is intended to be a ‘second generation’ of the CAC system in place currently.”

The new CECs will serve at the pleasure of Council – not citizens. The Community Engagement Board will act as a body of overseers. Rather than a citizen driven organization, the recommendations state, “The CEB will recommend recognition of the CECs by City Council when they meet the standards and guidelines developed by the CEB.”

Importantly, the tradition of citizens voting on rezoning requests is glaringly absent from the recommendations.  Presumably, under the new system citizens will never be able to indicate to Council when a rezoning request should be adopted and when it should be rejected.

In my view, these proposals are the opposite of citizen engagement. Our job as City Council is to be facilitators – not overseers. Our job is provide facilities, resources, and personnel to help citizens run effective meetings and to help them set their own agendas. City Council should not through a proxy Community Engagement Board preside over citizens. The two approaches are very different.

But, enough of my opinions. You be the judge. The final report contains 7 pages of recommendations plus more than 400 pages in appendices. I have extracted the recommendations into a separate file. Otherwise the file will be too big to download – particularly on a phone or tablet.

Here are the recommendations:
http://dcoxforcouncil.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/cetf.pdf

Here is the entire report (95MB in size):
http://www.raleighnc.gov/…/16ReportCommunityEngagement.pdf