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Cover Story: Micro Democracy

Cincinnati's Community Councils Are Grassroots Democracy At Work - Good, Bad And Ugly

By Kevin Osborne · June 28th, 2006 · Cover Story
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  Cincinnati's Community Councils are grassroots democracy at work � good, bad and ugly.
Sean Hughes

Cincinnati's Community Councils are grassroots democracy at work � good, bad and ugly.



For all of Cincinnati's many problems, the Queen City has a national reputation for doing some things right.

Cincinnati's urban park system has won top awards. The large stock of buildings with historic architecture is routinely lauded by preservationists and others. Our rich history of supporting cultural and performing arts institutions is envied by much larger cities.

Another notable attribute is the city's abundance of neighborhoods that have retained distinct identities with unique characteristics such as town squares and business districts. Part of the reason those neighborhoods have managed to survive and, in a few cases, thrive during the suburban flight of the past few decades is Cincinnati's emphasis on promoting grassroots neighborhood involvement through its system of community councils.

Ever want City Hall to fill some potholes on your street, get police to pay more attention to a crime hotspot or stop a large shopping mall from being built down the road? The local community council is a good place to start.

Although most large cities have some process for soliciting input from neighborhoods, Cincinnati goes a step further and provides regular funding for the community councils, letting the groups decide for themselves how it should be spent in their neighborhoods. As a result, virtually all of Cincinnati's 51 distinct neighborhoods have a voice in setting priorities and shaping decisions at City Hall that affect their communities.

It's democracy in microcosm, perhaps the ultimate realization of the adage, "Think globally, act locally."

'Get stuff done'
"The overall structure is fairly common, but Cincinnati empowers neighborhood councils much more here than in other places I've been," says Michael Cervay, director of the city's Community Development and Planning Department. "It's fairly unique in that the city provides operating support to them."

Under Cincinnati's neighborhood support program, each community is eligible to receive $7,000 annually from the city for eligible projects. A similar but separate program provides up to $9,000 each year to the city's 34 neighborhood business districts.

Occasionally, the community councils and business districts overlap on projects and pool their money.

To help ensure the money is spent properly, the city contracts with the non-profit Invest in Neighborhoods Inc. (IIN). The firm disburses funds and provides educational and technical assistance to the neighborhood groups, including leadership development to help residents become more effective in dealing with City Hall.

As a safeguard, every two years IIN reviews the financial records of community councils.

"I keep pushing the philosophy that community councils need to be almost like out-source contractors for the city, a way to get stuff done in the neighborhoods," says Rick Dieringer, IIN's executive director.

Additionally, city law gives community councils input about building code, zoning issues and infrastructure matters such as street and curb repairs.

Community councils are only as effective as residents want to make them, Dieringer says. Some neighborhoods have active groups with large, outspoken memberships, led by presidents whose names are known to the mayor; others struggle to find residents willing to participate.

"There are still a lot of people around the city who don't know that community councils exist and can be an outlet to improve things right in their own neighborhoods," says Pete Witte, president of the Price Hill Civic Association.

Patricia Milton, president of the Avondale Community Council, agrees. The key to having an effective council with clout among city officials is getting organized and reaching out to residents, she says.

"I feel community councils are still relevant and influential for neighborhood issues," Milton says. "The challenge is that communities who are more organized and have more volunteers and foot soldiers get more done for their communities."

Referring to City Hall, she adds, "Notification of issues is non-existent. You have to have your own set of eyes to know when relevant issues are coming to the floor (of Cincinnati City Council) for a vote, which again favors communities who are well-organized."

Deck stackers

Community councils are almost as distinctive as the neighborhoods they represent. They come in all shapes and sizes and are known by many names: the Downtown Residents Council, the Riverside Civic & Welfare Club and from the Clifton Town Meeting to the Paddock Hills Assembly.

Not only can each group pick its name, they also set their own bylaws to establish how they operate and elect leaders. Some groups have annual dues -- usually in the $5 range -- and restrict membership to neighborhood residents; others have no dues and open their memberships to business owners in the neighborhood.

A few community councils, such as Price Hill's, even allow all Hamilton County residents to join but let only neighborhood residents have voting rights.

"We really can't require that their bylaws follow a standard form or anything like that," Dieringer says. "That's up to the neighborhoods to decide for themselves. The city does have some influence over that by controlling the purse strings. If a community council becomes so torn apart that they're not functioning effectively, their funding can be suspended until they resolve the issues."

City Spokeswoman Meg Olberding says, "Each board establishes their own rules but there's a set of guidelines for how they can spend city funding, and they have to comply with that."

Using the guidelines, IIN provides money to community councils on a reimbursement basis once receipts or vouchers for projects are presented.

Further, IIN also awards "merit grants" each year using a competitive process. This year, the firm had $7,200 in the program and allowed grants up to $1,000 maximum. That money is raised from various sources, including corporate donations and carry-over funds from previous years. A peer-review panel examines applications and decides who gets the money.

Each neighborhood group must offer a representative to sit on the peer-review panel every three years or risk losing their funding.

Just as community councils vary in how they operate, the groups differ widely in the number of people they represent based on how city officials have set neighborhood boundaries.

Westwood, Cincinnati's largest neighborhood, has 35,730 residents; California, the smallest neighborhood, has 475 residents. Yet both groups are allocated the same amount of money each year by the city.

Some of the larger neighborhoods periodically lobby to divvy up funding on a proportional basis, but smaller areas protest. So far, city council has shown no interest in addressing the volatile topic.

Another drawback with community councils, some critics say, is that it's too easy for small cliques or factions to take over the groups. Depending on how bylaws are written and who regularly attends meetings, it's possible to manipulate the process.

Most community councils have rules letting the at-large membership vote to elect all board members and officers, such as president and treasurer. But some councils let members elect only a certain number of board members and allow the president to appoint the remainder. That can lead to concentrating power in the hands of a few people and "stacking the deck" to support pet projects, critics say.

'Things are on the upswing'
The origin of Cincinnati's community council system began with the creation of the federal Community Development Block Grant program in the mid-1970s. Each year federal grants were given to cities to reduce poverty and urban blight in certain eligible neighborhoods. Cincinnati had a separate neighborhoods department at the time, and it helped administer the program.

In 1978, Cincinnati received a large grant from the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, a philanthropic group named for one of General Motors' founders. The grant's purpose was to help devise a permanent source of funding for neighborhood groups.

Using the Mott grant, a coalition of neighborhood groups formed IIN in 1982 and established a special account to fund community councils. It was capitalized by $250,000 from participating neighborhood groups and $750,000 donated by local individuals, corporations and foundations.

Through interest and investment income, the fund's value is now about $930,000.

Both IIN and the community councils have had their share of controversy.

Gerald Tenbosch, IIN's former director, resigned in May after he was charged with felony theft for allegedly taking $16,500 from the accounts of the Finneytown Athletic Association, where he was treasurer. The revelation prompted two city council members to demand an audit of how IIN spent city money. An audit last year showed no irregularities.

In 2000, city officials suspended all funding for the West End Community Council and a related group, Genesis Redevelopment, after probes into how the money was spent. For the previous decade, the community council and Genesis received more than $825,000 and promised to build 130 housing units but completed just one house and repaired 11 other units.

Most of the money came from federal grants administered by the city. An earlier audit concluded much of the money was paid to board members and their relatives for work they performed or for repairs to their own homes.

A subsequent inquiry into the payments found that two city staffers violated conflict of interest rules, but concluded their actions were unintentional and due to a lack of written policies and procedures in the city's now defunct neighborhood services departments. Investigations by local police and the FBI found no criminal wrongdoing.

Dieringer says the money that was misused didn't come from the neighborhood services program, which is overseen by IIN.

Funding was restored to the West End Community Council in 2004 after the group elected an entirely new board of officers and underwent management training. The new board was led by president Dale Mallory, Cincinnati Mayor Mark Mallory's brother.

But the West End group again is embroiled in dispute after it voted in February to oust Dale Mallory from office. Several members were upset that he used rules to block a vote to oppose CityLink, a proposed one-stop center for the homeless and mentally ill that business and church groups want to build in the neighborhood (see "CityLink Divides West End," issue of Dec. 21-27, 2005).

Since Dale Mallory's impeachment, it was revealed he lobbied for CityLink while working for the Cincinnati Empowerment Corp., which administers federal anti-poverty funds. The board of the Empowerment Corp. didn't know about the arrangement and cancelled Mallory's consulting contract.

The West End isn't the only neighborhood where a former community council president's actions are stirring heated debate. Jack Brand, who used to head the Clifton Town Meeting, is proposing to build a large project between Ludlow and Howell avenues, near the center of the business district, that would include condominiums, office space and a retail area. Some residents fear the project's size, which includes an eight-story building along Howell, will overwhelm the area and destroy the neighborhood's charm. Brand, however, says the project will help stabilize the business district and add much-needed parking and library space.

The Clifton Town Meeting hasn't yet taken a stance on the project, until it receives more information from Brand.

A few years ago the Oakley Community Council complained that developer Rob Smyjunas used political connections to persuade City Hall to change zoning for a major site along Interstate 71. Although the community council wanted a smaller scale project there, Smyjunas won approval to build space for big box retailers such as Target, Circuit City and Meijer. He later sued the city to get tax credits for roads he built, despite not having a written agreement with the city. In a settlement with the city, Smyjunas received $4.2 million in exchange for agreeing never to seek tax increment funding for future projects in Oakley.

In 2000 the Avondale Community Council sued a neighborhood anti-crime group, alleging it didn't have the right to incorporate without the community council's consent and that it was hampering fund-raising efforts. The legal battle was sparked by competition between the groups for city funding, federal grants and corporate donations.

In 1998 the Sedamsville Community Council temporarily disbanded after a year of fighting between two factions over alleged misappropriation of public funds. At the time the group's president said the allegations came from a group of disgruntled members who wanted to take control.

Still, the Avondale and Sedamsville councils rebounded. Dieringer is hopeful about the future of community councils because of strong support from Mayor Mallory.

Since Mallory took office seven months ago, he has begun meeting quarterly with community council presidents. Moreover, Mallory wants to restore neighborhood funding to its previous level, $10,000 per council, in the 2007-08 budget. The amount was reduced in 2005 due to a budget crunch.

"Things are definitely on the upswing," Dieringer says. "This mayor is the first mayor in a while who sees exceptional benefit in having citizens at the grassroots level involved in the business of the city and wants to encourage that as much possible."

'Manipulate the maze of city employees'
Community council leaders, however, generally are more cautious about the relationship between themselves and City Hall. They're divided about just how much city officials listen to their concerns.

"I'm pretty discouraged about the influence of community councils on city officials," says Linda Ziegler, president of the CUF Neighborhood Association, which represents Clifton Heights, University Heights and Fairview near UC.

"For example, I can't even get various city departments to use the correct name for our community council," she says. "The city planning, economic development and neighborhood services folks hacked out half of our neighborhood from the (geographic mapping) system without our knowledge.

"It's hard to say if we have more or less influence now. It doesn't feel like we've ever had any. In our particular situation, UC rules. Whatever UC wants to do, the city backs it despite the wishes of the few residents who are left."

Paul Green, president of the Northside Community Council, echoes the sentiment.

"City Hall listens," he says. "Whether they act is another story. It depends on the issue. Sometimes they're Johnny on the spot, other times they do nothing at all."

Rob Foster, vice president of the Columbia Tusculum Community Council, believes city staffers are spending less time working with neighborhood groups.

"We used to have representatives from numerous city departments attend our meetings," he says. "But since the city eliminated comp time for attending these meetings, city participation has become almost non-existent."

Avondale's Milton dislikes the red tape and says neighborhood groups need persistence to get projects accomplished.

"We have had good success with (city officials) on issues we have presented to individual city council members for support," Milton says. "The challenge is figuring out how to manipulate the maze of city employees to get projects done and spend the dollars allocated to the community. You only get help if you ask the right questions."

As former chief of staff to then-City Councilman Phil Heimlich, Foster has an insider's view about how neighborhood councils are treated in the City Hall bureaucracy.

"The strength of a community council and the influence they have with City Hall is very dependent on the level of expertise within the (community) council and the amount of time they are willing to dedicate to advancing their agendas," he says. "There are some that are very adept when working with the system and there are those that will raise public awareness of an issue to achieve their goals. Often times, this is done at the expense of the procedures that have been put in place to ensure equitable service delivery.

"What has occurred with greater frequency is elected officials call upon these volunteer organizations to perform certain municipal functions and, in recent years, they have concurrently reduced the level of funding for community councils to execute these initiatives. This has created a system where neighborhoods must compete for basic city services, and often this will come at the expense of other neighborhoods."

For his part, Cervay believes Cincinnati's community council system errs on the side of ensuring public discourse and debate, which can sometimes slow the pace of projects.

"As public administrators, it's our job to find that right balance between efficiency and the democratic aspect," he says. "It's not a real efficient way of doing business and getting money out there or getting input, but democracy was never intended to be efficient. It's a fairly effective way to get things done, but I recognize it's not real pretty or real efficient. It gets ugly at times but that's OK, because it accomplishes what it's supposed to do." ©

 
 
 
 

 

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