Award-winning project aims to create citizen-responsive government

June 13, 2008

Neighborhood Associations’ disregard of renters a roadblock to full citizen involvement, says project director

By Jonathan Edwards

The New Orleans Citizen Participation Project met today to jumpstart a grassroots efforts that would take decision-making power out of the backrooms at City Hall and put it in the hands of residents.

We have to have an open chain of information between government and citizens, said Khalil Shahyd, the director of the New Orleans CPP, when he gave an hour-long presentation to community leaders and activists from across the city.

Right now the decisions are already made, the contracts are already signed, things are already done before citizens have any chance for involvement, Shahyd said.

A formal citizen participation project “allows residents to be aware of the activities of government before they occur,” according to a pamphlet distributed during the meeting at the Beacon of Hope Resource Center in Lakeview. “It requires that neighborhood residents be enabled to take part in the planning process and monitor progress on public or private projects and programs.

“Instead of having people overflowing City Council chambers in distress about proposed development, residents will be made aware of all plans and be allowed to give input on those decisions that directly affect their community,” the pamphlet continues.

“It makes sure that what happens is what people want” Shahyd said. An issue arises or a proposal is presented—residents hear about it and decide if it is in their best interest.

The idea is not new, nor is it unique to New Orleans, said Shahyd. The PowerPoint presentation moved on, revealing a map of the United States. Stars started popping up on the screen, representing already-existing citizen participation programs: Sacramento, Houston, New York City, Baltimore—at least a dozen lit up.

Some of these programs have been around since the 1970s, but most were created in a “top-down decision” by a city’s government, Shahyd said. Local officials decided that their citizens needed this tool, and so they gave it to them. New Orleans will be the first “ground-up” approach, emerging from a collection of neighborhood groups.

“Our citizen participation program will be created by you. It is a people-driven exercise, and everyone is invited,” said Shahyd. “We hope that in six months to a year that we can create the first bottom-up, citizen-led democracy in America. It sounds like a lot, but we can do it.”

In the CPP model used in other cities, neighborhood associations are the grassroots forums where residents voice concerns over issues or make a decision passed down from city government, said Shahyd. He then attacked some New Orleans neighborhood organizations, though none by name, for excluding certain groups in their respective communities.

“We’re seeing a return to a land-based type of participation,” Shahyd said, referring to a time in early U.S. history when the right to vote required property ownership. “They’re not really operating as a neighborhood association, but as a homeowners association,” he said. The interests of renters are often ignored, said Shahyd.

Tension between homeowners and renters is not a new subject for Shahyd. He addressed them in an August 2006 interview as many New Orleanians were returning to the city after a Katrina-induced exile. On camera, an emotional Shahyd mentions an unnamed contingent of New Orleans residents who did not want renters, or rental properties, back in the city:

“We have to understand: whether you’re a homeowner or you’re a renter, it’s not because people own land, or because they own property that they want to come back,” he said. “But it’s because this land owns us; we belong to this land.

“And so young or old, crippled, blind, dumb and crazy, people want to come back to here, because this land is concrete, the soil, the river, the lake—everything—it owns us, and we belong to it. It has nothing to do with homeowners and renters,” said Shahyd.

Shahyd and the New Orleans CPP aim to use neighborhood associations, including the homeowners they represent, as the primary conduits of information between city government and individual residents. Open communication, Shahyd said, is the key to citizen-led decision-making.

“If citizens don’t have the relevant information, they can’t make decisions that affect their lives and their neighborhoods,” said Shahyd. A citizen participation project in New Orleans would increase government transparency and accountability, and would do so by creating a system where there is an open flow of information between elected officials and the citizens they represent.

Mike Murphy, the community outreach director for Tulane University’s Environmental Law Clinic, asked Shahyd how the project would acquire operational funding.

Many already-existing citizen participation projects are funded by their city’s annual budget, Shahyd responded. This, however, leaves them open to fluctuations in the political climate. Nevertheless, a similar project in New Orleans would probably acquire funding from the city budget, but Shahyd also said private funding was possible as well.

The New Orleans CPP is in the middle of a two-month campaign to inform city residents about their project and galvanize energy for their upcoming July summit after winning a $25,000 grant from the Seattle-based Case Foundation, according to a May 9 press release. Resident input at the summit, Shahyd says, will determine many key features of New Orleans citizen participation project will look like.

“The Summit will provide additional information on the concept of a formal Citizen Participation Program; more important, citizen attendees will begin the work of designing the CPP process going forward and determining how they wish to guide the project through the design and implementation phases.”

Neither Kate Parker, the president of the Faubourg-St. John Neighborhood Association, nor Jennifer Weishaupt, the president of the Mid-City Neighborhood Organization, could be reached by deadline. Lifeblood Beat will continue tracking this story.