A $503,700 grant was supposed to encourage citizen involvement in government, but nothing has been done to put people in the chairs of the City Council’s chambers.

By Ariella Cohen, staff writer – A year and a half after the city of New Orleans received a half-million-dollar donation to foster citizen involvement in the recovery, none of the programs has been fully implemented and neighborhood activists complain that the main beneficiary so far is City Hall.

“This grant was supposed to build capacity in neighborhoods and make the grassroots groups that have been leading the recovery since the beginning partners with the city.  That’s not happening,” said Timolyn Sams, director of the Neighborhoods Partnership Network, an alliance of neighborhood groups formed after Katrina to help members better make themselves heard in city planning.

The $503,700 at issue came from a grant given by the Rockefeller Foundation to the city’s Office of Recovery and Development Administration in August of 2008 – before the departure of Recovery Czar Ed Blakely and subsequent departmental reorganization. The purpose of the grant, as spelled out in the proposal approved by the foundation was to “increase citizen engagement through creation of new forms of outreach” and improve communication between the city and its citizens.

The city promised to put the money toward an improved Web site and other new forms of outreach, including a community advisory program, print guides to City Hall and neighborhood organizing, and a leadership-training institute led by community organizations. Several nonprofit organizations, including Sams’, worked with recovery officials on the proposal, offering insight on community needs and even titles for proposed programs.

The city has spent nearly half the money, about $238,00. Yet the Web site the money paid for remains under virtual wraps and none of the programs has moved forward, though the city hired an administrator at $93,000 to run them.

The bulk of the money, $145,000, was put toward a new Web site for the Office of Community Development, http://www.rebuildrecoveroneneworleans.com. That office became the city’s chief recovery agency after Blakely left New Orleans last summer. It is run by longtime Nagin aide Kenya Smith.  Though the new site is live, no news has been added since December and there are no links to it on the city’s main Web site, or on any other city sites.

“I was just talking to a community organization about the site today,” said Troy Body, chief of staff for the Office of Community Development. We’re getting feedback, seeing what needs to be done to meet neighborhood needs.”

He said that he expected the site to be running soon. (The contract for the work is availble here.)

It’s not the first delay for the programs funded by the grant. The money came with a Dec. 31, 2009 deadline. In June, city officials asked for another year, saying the extra time was needed because the city’s recovery office was restructured and because of a hiring freeze.  That hiring freeze ended late last year.

The Office of Community Development celebrated by hiring Sisa Moyo as a Neighborhood Communication Coordinator responsible for oversight of the new engagement efforts. The $93,000 position is funded for only one year through the grant. The city could not say whether other money would be spent on keeping the position once the grant expires.

Under the contract with Rockefeller, Moyo must implement the programs by May 31, or the city will have to give back the unspent money. Moyo did not return phone calls or e-mails from The Lens.

Consultants and activists who worked with the recovery office to write the grant say they wish more of the money were reaching grassroots organizations.

The leadership-training series included in the grant proposal takes its inspiration from Neighborhoods Partnership Network’s Capacity College program. A sizable chunk of the grant – $90,000 – was set aside to run the series, and last summer, the city issued a request for proposals for the work. Sams said her organization responded to the request but never heard back. Body said he was unsure about whether a new request would be issued.  Recently, Sams’ group trademarked “Capacity College” to prevent the city from creating its own program with the same name.

“They call their program Capacity College, a name we have rights to, and meanwhile, they haven’t even acknowledged our interest in running the program,” she said. “It’s time to reassess how they are spending this money.”

Others who worked on the proposal share that concern.

“It’s my disappointment that the city’s commitment to building neighborhood capacity is so low,” said Julianna Padgett, who was the Resource Director at the New Orleans Recovery Foundation at the time the grant was written.

Initially, the grant was supposed to be given to her foundation, a nonprofit located within City Hall and created to raise private money for public projects.

As the foundation’s resource director, Padgett worked with city officials and neighborhood leaders such as Sams to write the proposal. Along with her former boss Jessie Smallwood, Padgett was surprised when she learned that the material she wrote had financed a new Web site and a staff position at City Hall.

“The funds were to be utilized by the office of recovery management to be an aid to the recovery, not city employees,” said Smallwood, who still heads the foundation but no longer raises money for the Office of Community Development.

Rockefeller, for its part, says city recovery officials did not violate the terms of the grant – or do anything they didn’t say they were going to do in the grant proposal.

“The goal was to help support capacity building. That could mean bringing on staff with know-how and expertise or supporting grassroots efforts,” said Darren Walker, vice president of Foundation Initiatives of the Rockefeller Foundation. Even so, he is disappointed by the way the projects have progressed.

“It is fair to say that the Office of Community Development did not move as quickly as we would like,” Walker said. “It is also fair to say to say they had a significant burden in a difficult context.

“Although none of us are completely satisfied with progress in New Orleans, consider if those investments had not happened.”

Rockefeller has been a major force in the recovery. Since shortly after the storm, the New York-based institution has given millions of dollars in the region. But unlike traditional charities focused on rebuilding individual houses and playgrounds, the foundation has invested in rebuilding social and governmental structures.

In 2007, the foundation partnered with the Ford Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to give $1.5 million to the recovery office. The Rockefeller Foundation gave another $2.2 million in 2007 to fund fellowships for urban redevelopment professionals working in New Orleans. Before that, in 2006, Rockefeller gave the city $3.5 million to fund the creation of the Unified New Orleans Plan.

Walker said the $503,000 grant for citizen engagement represented the end of the foundation’s “active grant making” in New Orleans.