Update 12 Feb: After some back-and-forth with the N&O editorial staff, I have trimmed my op-ed into a long letter.
I wrote and submitted this 500-word Op-Ed to the News and Observer tonight. I hope they run it. I will be forever passionate about citizen engagement (real citizen engagement) and oppose any efforts to water it down.
A Requiem for Raleigh’s Citizens Advisory Councils
In 1974, amid concerns that Raleigh’s rapid growth was distancing city leaders from the community they served, Mayor Clarence Lightner launched Raleigh’s Citizens Advisory Councils (CACs). CACs offered a forum where citizens and government officials could share information and concerns. For over 46 years, the city’s 18 CACs and their parent organization, the Raleigh Citizens Advisory Council (RCAC) was the only advisory board not appointed by City Council, a unique status that granted neighbors the freedom to discuss what was important to them and a means to provide unfiltered insight to City Council. Sadly, in a vote that demonstrated a shocking lack of transparency and good government, Raleigh’s mayor and City Council abruptly ended this decades-long partnership with nothing ready to take its place.
Much has been made of the (merely advisory) role CACs played in rezoning cases but CACs were so much more. When a neighbor lost her home and husband in a tragic fire, CAC neighbors pulled together to collect clothes and furniture. After the April 2011 tornadoes ripped through Raleigh, CAC volunteers were in the streets clearing debris and distributing water. In response to crime concerns, CACs worked with landlords to implement after-school activities for their teen residents and worked with the Raleigh Police Department to open neighborhood offices. CACs provided a neutral forum where police could meet with wary neighbors and build new connections and trust. CACs organized community events that promoted health and distributed school supplies to neighborhood kids. With CACs it didn’t matter what race you were, how wealthy you were, what your age was, or whether you rented or owned your home: if you were a resident your voice counted. You had a seat at the table.
Like any organization, CACs had their challenges. The unvarnished feedback CACs gave was not always welcome (especially to some developers, though almost all projects won CAC favor). CACs faced a continual fight for shrinking city resources and support. And, yes, CACs were known to butt heads at times but it is precisely this independence that gave CACs their strength: chairs were answerable only to their neighbors.
It is this independence that Raleigh will miss the most. Every other city advisory board is driven from the top down; its work must first be approved by the City Council. How can we ensure citizen concerns will be adequately addressed when city council alone controls the conversation? Who will be doing the listening and who will be doing the talking? Without the crucial independence enjoyed by CACs, community engagement quickly devolves into a one-way conversation. Partnership has been fatally wounded.
Raleigh’s CACs represented one of the most beautiful forms of democracy: neighbors coming together to work things out. Our city will be hard-pressed to improve on it.