By Karen Gadbois, The Lens staff writer

The City Council decided this week that it’s ready to start a process to plan for formal citizen participation – a process that citizens actually have been working toward for years.

To the dismay of those who have held dozens of meetings involving hundreds of people, their plan – dubbed the NOLA Citizen Participation Project – will be just one of a number of such plans considered by the City Planning Commission.

That effort was led by the Committee for a Better New Orleans, which said it was invited by city planners before Katrina to devise such a plan.

That group has submitted its plan to the City Planning Commission, hoping it would bless the effort and pass it on to the council in the form of a new ordinance.

But Councilwoman Jackie Clarkson said the plan, which is actively opposed by some organizations as being too expensive and cumbersome, didn’t involve enough citizen input and she wants the Planning Commission to give it another try.

She said it’s the appropriate agency to handle such an effort because it held many such meetings to formulate the city’s recently passed master plan  — and that the master plan is what calls for the neighborhood participation plan.

Clarkson, who wrote the resolution that the council approved Thursday, said now is the time to start putting together that plan. She revised her original resolution to recognize the work of the Committee for a Better New Orleans, even as she asked the Planning Commission to undertake the same effort.

“This is to establish that no one person, no one neighborhood, no one organization is the lead,” she said. “It is the Planning Commission.”

At least one speaker opposing the resolution found it troubling to let a city agency be in charge of devising a plan for citizen participation, rather than the citizens themselves.

And unwittingly underscoring the need for gathering citizen input, the council changed its rules for public comment, allowing only two minutes per speaker, rather than the usual three.

Otherwise, they’d never get through them all, said Clarkson –  who then cut off many of the speakers on all sides of the issue when they exceeded their time.

Clarkson said she wants the Planning Commission to build on the work of the Committee for a Better New Orleans, and any other plan already in development. In particular, she noted that the Garden District Association, led by Shelley Landrieu, is working on a similar plan.

“We want you at the table, too,” Clarkson said.

Speakers opposed to the resolution – essentially pushing for approval of the Committee for a Better New Orleans plan – raised an array of questions: Why spend more money? Why take more time? Isn’t this sending a mixed message about how much the city appreciates citizen efforts? If city planners reach the same conclusion, won’t it be seen as a waste of time? If they reach a different conclusion, won’t it raise questions about their process? How will this affect developers, who have been waiting for such rules? How will this affect national philanthropies, some of which have underwritten the Committee for a Better New Orleans? And one recurring question: Why start over?

Addressing that question once again, Clarkson said, “We’re not starting over. I’ve said that a few times.

“But this will be run by the Planning Commission.”

Other speakers applauded the move to let city planners lead the effort. They were generally brief with their comments, simply saying everyone wasn’t included in the effort by the Committee for a Better New Orleans.

The organization’s executive director,  Keith Twitchell, spoke in opposition to the resolution and expressed a desire “that this work be the basis for going forward.”

Researcher Dorian Hastings, who worked with the Neighborhoods Partnership Network, voiced concerns about the organization’s plan, saying she had examined similar efforts elsewhere in the country.

She said the plan is “labor intensive” and expressed concerns about smaller neighborhood organizations and the role the city will play in vetting those organizations.

“A number of neighborhoods have competing organizations claiming the same territory,” and she fears that government will get “dragged into these domestic disputes” under the plan proposed by Citizens for a Better New Orleans.

Clarkson said Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s new office of neighborhoods will help implement whatever plan is ultimately approved by the City Council. Landrieu spokesman Ryan Berni acknowledged that, stressing that the office itself won’t try to meet the requirements of the master plan.

“The office addresses the recommendation of the Neighborhood Development Task Force for a dedicated Office of Neighborhoods and is separate from the obligation that the Master Plan creates,” he said.

The council passed the resolution 5-0. Council members Arnie Fielkow and  Cynthia Hedge-Morell were absent.

Karen Gadbois

Karen Gadbois co-founded The Lens. She now covers New Orleans government issues and writes about land use. With television reporter Lee Zurik she exposed widespread misuse of city recovery funds and led...