Government & Politics

Citizen-participation plan gets chilly reception from council

Despite years of work involving dozens of meetings with thousands of residents, a plan to create a formal system for citizen interaction with city government has run into a buzz saw of opposition, with the most objection recent coming from a city council member.

The Committee for a Better New Orleans has been devising and revising its plan, working at what its leader thought was the behest of the City Planning Commission. But Councilwoman Jackie Clarkson recently said no single plan being circulated will be adopted and she wants the commission to start over and hold a series of public meetings to gather input.

At issue is a requirement of the city’s new Master Plan, which calls for a structured approach to citizen involvement, designed to get information to residents — about, say, a proposed development – and to gather feedback on other issues, such as the city budget. The effort goes by a few names, and it’s most commonly dubbed either the citizen-participation project or the neighborhood-participation plan.

Keith Twitchell, executive director of Committee for a Better New Orleans, said his organization’s efforts on the project began in 2003 in response to a City Planning Commission request. He said the finely tuned plan developed over the past two years is the result of dozens of meetings “conducted in every section of the city, and participants have represented the full demographic and geographic diversity of the city”

He’s frustrated and confused that city officials want to start over.

“It is very puzzling to the many citizens who worked for two years – at the request of the City Planning Commission to develop the New Orleans Citizen Participation Program – that a City Council member would direct the Planning Commission to ignore their work.”

Clarkson presents a different timeline.

“From the time of the 2008 mandate of the people for a Master Plan with the force of law, the City Planning Commission has not directed any person or entity to compose the Neighborhood Participation Plan conceived of in the charter amendment,” Clarkson said in a written statement.

Clarkson said that was why she tried to introduce a resolution Thursday that would have directed the members of the planning commission to undertake the work, “as they did with the master plan and will do with the comprehensive zoning code.”

Clarkson also praised the work done thus far: “I view the work that has already been done as very good.” But she went on to say, “The City Planning Commission is not going to adopt any one plan that is already out there”

“The Neighborhood Participation Plan should be composed after a series of highly-publicized meetings,” she wrote.

She said she doesn’t have a timeline in mind.

She agreed to delay a discussion and vote on a substitute resolution — which recognized efforts to date — until the council’s Oct. 21 meeting.

Twitchell said he’d be happy to work with the City Planning Commission, which is already reviewing his group’s plan. “There is some really good work done by dedicated people, and now there can be more open discussion to cultivate input.”

Others have expressed concerns over the way the already-developed plan would function as well as who would pay the projected cost of more than $2 million.

Michael Cowan Director of Common Good New Orleans called the plan by Committee for a Better New Orleans an “ill conceived overreach into civic participation”.

Cowan contends that civic organizations operate “in the realm of voluntary organizations and not as a part of government.”

Additionally, Cowan cites the recommendation of the Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s Neighborhood Development Task Force to create equity in neighborhood organizations by creating an Office of Neighborhoods to satisfy the Master Plan requirements.  He said that an Office of Neighborhoods would be far less intrusive and would encourage more neighborhoods to organize.

One of the city’s more prominent neighborhood organizations, the Garden District Association, has come out against the committee’s plan.

Editor’s note: The Lens and the Committee for a Better New Orleans are members of a coalition dedicated to open governance.

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