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:

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


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

History Lesson – Let’s Have an Investigation, Part 2

In the first part of this history lesson, I noted how John Odom as a board member of the non-profit, Passage Home, brought to City Council a Citizens Advisory Council meeting where the CEO of Passage Home was confronted with difficult and heated questions about how the non-profit was conducting part of its operation.  One consequence of that Council meeting was that Odom called for an investigation of the CAC.  All of this was described in detail in a 2015 News & Observer article.

That same article described an incident where I attended a meeting of the CAC chairpersons (collectively, the group of chairpersons is referred to as the RCAC).  The purpose of my attendance was to give a brief presentation on height limitations near property lines – particularly, height limitations near residential property.  However, my presence was protested.  According to that same N&O article:

“The board (RCAC) originally scheduled time at a meeting for David Cox, a leader of the North Raleigh resistance to a Dunn Road development plan. Cox was to speak after Planning Director Ken Bowers.

This peeved Will Allen, the Hillsborough CAC chair. Allen blasted out a mass email arguing that Cox wasn’t a planning expert and that he was too politically biased to deserve a place on the agenda, calling it a misuse of city resources.

A few days later, Cox disappeared from the agenda, reportedly because of time constraints.

Yet on March 18, the Raleigh CAC found itself in a lengthy debate about whether to hear from Cox, who was eventually allowed to make his presentation about height restrictions near property lines under the new zoning ordinance. His talk was about as long as the debate that preceded it.

Afterward, Allen said it was proof the whole system has to go.”

Pause for a moment… Yes, the article says that the Hillsborough CAC Chairperson protested my request to speak to the RCAC.

Moreover, the article claims that the Hillsborough CAC Chairperson said that my request to speak was proof that the whole system has to go – I, as a citizen (albeit not a planning expert), had requested to give a presentation to fellow citizens who volunteer their service to a system that they presumably believe has value by giving a voice to citizens.

Fast forward to the present…

Today the Hillsborough CAC has a new Chairperson.  Indeed, the Hillsborough CAC has an entirely new board consisting of three people that I greatly admire and respect as champions of citizen participation and neighborhoods:

Bob Geary, Chair
Will Hooker, Vice-Chair
Francesco Visone, Secretary


It does happen, apparently, that some people will volunteer to serve a system that they fundamentally do not believe in.  Some go so far to try to destroy that system.  The thought never seems to occur to make the system better. By 2015 the seeds had been sown within certain circles that the CACs are bad and must be eliminated.  And, if not eliminated, then replaced with something else that is just effective at silencing the voices of citizens.

Sadly, that effort, I fear, is ongoing.

You can read the entire N&O article here:

History Lesson: Let’s Have An Investigation

This is our first history lesson.  It begins not at the beginning but somewhere in the middle. This lesson has two parts.  I begin, naturally, with part one…

It is morning, March 30, 2015.  People are retrieving their newspapers.  The night before at 6:13pm a story appeared online from N&O reporter, Andrew Kenney.

Andy reports (link to Andy Kenney’s entire report is below),

“Tempers are flaring and relationships fraying as the city grapples with a new wave of development.  During the struggles, Raleigh’s 19 citizen councils have become flashpoints in debates about everything from gentrification to suburban development, prompting calls for change in a system designed to link city government and constituents.”

Former Council Member, John Odom, calls for an investigation.  According to Andy,

“In South Raleigh, City Council member John Odom has called an investigation into a contentious meeting between that area’s Citizens Advisory Council and a local nonprofit. East of downtown, another citizen board was the site of a showdown between a City Council member and a neighborhood leader.”

Citizen Advisory Council (CAC) meetings are fluid.  CACs are a gathering place for citizens.  A particular development case arises and those citizens concerned or interested in that case come to the CAC to hear about and – importantly – express their opinions and view.  Development cases range from rezonings to disposition of property that the City owns for redevelopment.

Sometimes CAC discuss other matters that can be equally or more contentious.  Andy Kenney reports on the matter of a building just south of downtown known as the Raleigh Community and Safety Club.  According to Andy, a non-profit known as Passage Home hosts several programs from the building paid in part with grants from the City including $50,000 to “start a program that would employ and train five people at a time” in the building’s commercial kitchen.

Use of the building was discussed at a recent CAC meeting where the Chief Executive of Passage Home gave a presentation.

Citizens from the area were concerned that they were being excluded from the building which had been a long time landmark of the area as a public gathering space.  They were concerned that Passage Home wasn’t serving the neighborhood apparently as intended but keeping the building inaccessible and using it to serve people from outside the neighborhood.

Per Andy Kenney the following sentiment was expressed, “We are the public that you should have collaborated with. Since 2005, you have not collaborated with us, and the community has questions.”

As Andy Kenny writes, there is tension.


John Odom learns of the debate and the tension and brings this meeting up at the March 3, 2015 City Council meeting.  Andy notes,


“Odom, a member of Passage Home’s board of directors, brought the spat to the City Council on March 3.”

I’ll stop here.  In the second part some more characters enter our story including one named, David Cox.  But, there is no need to get into that just now.

And so it began…

Read more here:


History Lessons

Last fall City Council formed the Citizen Engagement Task Force (aka CETF). Soon, a recommendation from CETF will be presented to City Council (spoiler alert: no provision for citizens to vote on rezoning requests).

When the CETF recommendations become available we will all have a chance to discuss and debate them. To aid the discussion and debate, it is important to review the history that led up to the formation of the CETF and the resulting recommendations.

The history is just long enough and complex enough that it cannot be easily summarized in a single post on Facebook. It will have to be presented as a series of several posts. You will recognize these posts because they will each begin with the words HISTORY LESSON.

Because this is a Facebook group, you will be able to contribute to these lessons. You will be able to add information and perspective. You will be able to correct mistakes or inaccurate information. You will be able (aghast!) to provide your opinions.

Here are some tentative titles for these lessons:

Let’s Have An Investigation
There’s A Storm In North Raleigh
Old People And Their Home Made Signs
Amateur Night at the RCAC
Strangers On A Train To Charlotte
A Modest Proposal
Just Because Others Go To CAC Meetings Doesn’t Mean You Can

Statement on Downtown Fire

Note: these are my own comments and not official comments from the City of Raleigh

First and foremost, I am extremely grateful for this City’s first responders. Despite the enormity of this fire, our fire fighters, police, emergency teams worked together in exemplary fashion to get the fire under control and ensure that there was no loss of life or serious injury. Raleigh is a top rated city and our first responders are at the top of the class.

Second, as the Fire Chief acknowledged during the press conference, this was Raleigh’s largest fire since the 1920’s. The fact that it happened indicates that our knowledge is incomplete and that there will be lessons to be learned.

Obviously, there is an investigation that is ongoing. Eventually, we will learn what happened. And we will learn what we must do differently to prevent something like this from happening again.

Thank you.
David Cox
Raleigh City Council Member

The Importance of Good Character

A few weeks ago I attended a meeting of the Citizens Engagement Task Force.  During that meeting Raleigh’s Planning Director, Ken Bowers, made a presentation to the task force about rezoning requests.  At one point someone asked him why people object to rezoning requests.  His answer really resonated with me.

Ken said that there are two main objections that people have with rezonings: the impact on traffic and the impact on the character of an area.

For me the last part of this statement was a revelation.  THE MAIN OBJECTION OF A REZONING IS THE IMPACT ON THE CHARACTER OF AN AREA. Even when it seems that the main objection is traffic, what people really object to is the change in character.  Yet, it can be remarkably difficult for people (even those who object to a rezoning) to think of their concerns in terms of character.  Here is why.

I have been involved with contentious rezoning requests where people walk away from public meetings with a gut wrenching feeling about what the proposed request is going to do their neighborhood.  Inevitably, the word, “mitigation,” comes up.  What is it about the rezoning that you don’t like?  What is it that can be done to mitigate those impacts?

At subsequent meetings discussions ensue about traffic, lighting, noise, hours of operation, offensive odors, etc.  One-by-one the impacts are mitigated. Don’t like the lighting? No problem, we will install parking lot lights that direct the light straight down.  Concerned about dumpsters?  No problem, we will ensure that the dumpsters are only emptied once a week at a that is convenient to you.  Can’t stand the odor of hamburgers cooking?  We have that covered by ensuring that our restaurants won’t have fryers or grills.  Concerned about traffic? We can handle that too by widening the road and adding traffic lights.

One-by-one the checkboxes are ticked off and all the concerns are mitigated.

Pause a moment and think about this statement.  One-by-one the checkboxes are ticked off and all the concerns are mitigated. Logic dictates that if all the concerns are mitigated, then the rezoning request should be approved.

What people often don’t realize is that there remains one checkbox that is frequently overlooked: the change to the character of an area.  Yes, all the minutiae has been addressed.  But in the end, growth and development is all about change. Sometimes the change to the character of an area is minor or at least acceptable – as long as the individual concerns have been mitigated.

In other cases, the change to the character of an area is so dramatic that people cannot accept it even though the individual concerns have been mitigated.

Ken Bowers distilled peoples’ concerns down to two issues: traffic and character.  I distill those concerns even further to just character.  Yes, we can widen roads, add turn lanes and traffic lights.  In some case we can even do the dramatic like construct interchanges and fly overs.  We can handle the traffic.  But, despite all of our ability to “mitigate the impacts,” what gives people that gut wrenching feeling is that some rezoning requests and proposals for growth and development forever change the character of an area.

 And forever changing the character of an area is something we should take seriously and not overlook simply because we have ticked off all the other checkboxes.

Visualizing the Future

One of my interests in computer science (I have a Ph.D. in computer science) is 3D computer graphics. I think we should bring this technology to bear during rezoning cases. Raleigh is growing rapidly and being able to visualize the impacts of growth and development are essential for deciding how or if property should be rezoned.

Here is an example of state-of-the-art software for doing exactly this sort of visualization.

Statement on Raleigh’s Code of Conduct

Raleigh recently adopted a new Code of Conduct to regulate the behavior of City Council Members.

I voted against the Code of Conduct. In fact, I was the lone dissenting vote.

In general I agree with much of what is in the document. There is language about treating others with respect and using the manners that most of us learn from an early age – like not interrupting when another person is speaking. In general, the parts of the Code of Conduct that address “how” we behave are fine.

Where I disagree are with parts of the Code of Conduct that discourage or prohibit “what” we can say in public and “with whom” we can associate with in public.

There is language in the code of conduct that discourages even the mere attendance at public meetings. For example, if constituents that I represent have a concern about a rezoning case, I am discouraged from attending a meeting of the Planning Commission to hear the arguments of the case – even if I were to simply sit quietly in the back of the auditorium only to listen.

When a Councilor does speak in public, the Code of Conduct admonishes, “Keep your political support and opinions away from public forums.”

However, it is OK to talk privately with people and express one’s views. For example, the practice of privately meeting with developers and their lobbyists about rezoning cases can continue unimpeded. In fact, some Councilors will call developers to advise them that they can or cannot vote for a rezoning. Sometimes you will hear that a developer has withdrawn a rezoning case. Very often that is because a Councilor has told the developer that he or she doesn’t have the votes.

Fundamentally, the parts of the Code of Conduct that limit with whom one can associate with and what one can say in public are the parts that I disagree with. They are fundamentally in conflict with the First Amendment that prevents government from abridging the right of free speech and the right to assemble in public.

In my opinion, these limitations should be removed from the Code of Conduct.

This is particularly true about rezoning cases. Developers have deep pockets and often the backing of third parties such as large corporations that want to build the next hotel, grocery store, or shopping center. They hire expensive attorneys to represent them and protect their interests. I have seen cases where developers have hired professional public relations firms and professional lobbyists. And these small armies come to the offices of the City Council to meet with Councilors and the Mayor to wage campaigns that can last for a year or more.

In contrast, you the homeowner, cannot afford to compete. Often, the only resource you have is me, your District Councilor, that you voted for to represent you.

And now, by the City’s Code of Conduct, representing you is the one thing I cannot do in public. I fundamentally disagree with these restrictions and that is largely why I voted against the Code of Conduct.

And, now for the disclaimer (as required by the Code of Conduct): “This is the opinion of the individual and not the opinion of the City of Raleigh.”