From the Ground Up Citizens Push Back But Questions Remain

The evening of June 6 so many people showed up at Raleigh City Council, that they overflowed into the lobby and into a conference room on the floor above where they could watch on TV.  The reason?  On May 2nd Council voted 5 to 3 to begin implementing a recommendation to create a new organization that will “become the second generation” (in other words replace) Citizen Advisory Councils.  And, citizens came to object.

I voted against this recommendation as did Council Members Kay Crowder and Corey Branch.  I voted no because the intent of these recommendations is to replace Raleigh’s current grassroots Citizens Advisory Councils with top-down, Council driven Citizens Engagement Councils. 

For more than 40 years Raleigh has been the home of a unique form of citizen involment.  Started by then Mayor Clarence Lightner, citizens began gathering to discuss issues important to them.  Those issues ranged from school assignments to rezoning proposals to trash collection.  Referred to as Citizens Advisory Council meetings, these meetings were a place where citizens could come, discuss, and ultimately advise City Government about how to proceed on the issues of the day.

Typically, Citizens Advisory Council (or CAC) meetings happen once a month.  Because Raleigh is large and occupies about 145 square miles, there are 19 such meetings.  To organize the meetings the citizens elect a Chair, Vice or Co Chair, and solicit volunteers to help out.  CACs are truly grassroots.  For its part the City Government provides space in community centers and some money to help get the word out.  Otherwise, the citizens run their own meetings.

On May 2nd Council adopted a recommendation by a task force to create a Council appointed board that would oversee the creation of about 12 Citizens Engagement Councils (CECs). The board would set standards for how the CECs should operate.  One recommended standard is that the CECs would meet quarterly rather than monthly.  Furthermore, the CECs would not be advisory in nature.  Citizens Advisory Councils actually vote on issues and report the results of those votes to government bodies such as the Planning Commission as well as to City Council.  Those votes would not continue with CECs.

So, on June 6th Citizens came in large numbers to express their opposition to the May 2nd adoption of these recommendations.  Council listened to some 30 people who had filed petitions to speak on the topic.  And the Mayor offered the following statement:

Before we start tonight, I do have a few comments that I would like to make. I do want to take a few moments now and acknowledge the concerns that have been circulating in the community regarding the future of the CACs. The CACs have not been disbanded or changed in any way.  

I believe every member of this City Council understands and values the important role the CACs have had and continue to play in citizen engagement. I’m very glad that you’re all here tonight. The CAC Chairs, and those that work through the CACs, are the resource that we need to figure out how to improve citizen engagement in this growing city. I want everyone to know that I am committed to a citizen engagement process that includes everyone. And I mean everyone. 

What we’re doing now is starting a community wide discussion on how we better communicate and engage with the public; now that we are a community that is approaching a half a million people. And I apologize that our communication attempts have failed in conveying that message. I know that it has come across as an attempt to disband the CACs, and that is not the intent of this process.   

I would like to reiterate that I appreciate the work of the Citizen Engagement Task Force, however, we need to acknowledge that at this time, that those that have been actively involved in citizen engagement through their CACs, feel that their voice has not been heard…and has not had the opportunity to be heard. 

So before we move forward, I would like to say ‘let’s pause and take a breath’; it’s more important to get this right than it is to rush through a process that people have concerns about right off the bat. So I would like to suggest that our next step be a Council work session that includes a consultant that will facilitate an open dialogue and help bring a consensus around how we proceed. And how we move forward. I think we can all agree that we do share a common goal and that is “how do we improve citizen engagement in Raleigh?” 

This statement reads like a reaffirmation of Citizens Advisory Councils. However, many questions are unanswered. Yes, Mayor McFarlane says the CACs will continue.  But, in what capacity will they continue? What oversight is the City going to institute?  Will CACs remain grassroots and independent?  Is the City going ahead with creating CECs that will eventually overshadow CACs?

The vote to begin implementing the recommendations of May 2nd remains in force.  If Council wants the trust of citizens and really wants to begin improving citizens engagement with a clean slate, then Council should repeal the vote of May 2nd.

With the May 2nd vote in force, the question remains, what is the fate of Clarence Lightner’s experiment in Democracy?  What is the fate of Citizens Advisory Councils?