By Karen Gadbois, The Lens staff writer |

Three years after New Orleans voters approved a necessary charter change, City Hall is finally getting around to implementing the so-called Neighborhood Participation Program to give disparate communities all across the city a more direct voice in the governance process.

According to a just-released “Scope of Work,” a five-step process begins next month as neighborhood liaisons – five have been identified to date — begin meeting with city officials to develop a “framework” and then move toward “comprehensive implementation” of the NPP by May 2013.

It’s been a long and winding road to date.

The 2008 amendment mandated that the city “establish by ordinance a system for organized and effective neighborhood participation in land-use decisions and other issues that affect the quality of life.”

To further a process that appeared stalled, the City Council last October passed a resolution directing the City Planning Commission to “prepare and recommend an ordinance informed by the public that establishes a system for neighborhood participation.”

The resolution obligated $60,000 for the task: $15,000  for facilitators, $15,000 for a media consultant, and $30,000 for assorted costs gathering public input.

The resolution gave no timeline for the completion and presentation of the ordinance.

Last month, the process was yanked in a different direction as the city effectively removed the Neighborhood Participation Program from the purview of the City Planning Commission and handed it to a newly created city department first called the Office of Neighborhood Engagement and known by its acronym, ONE, and now renamed the Neighborhood Engagement Office (NEO).

“ONE will create avenues of engagement through online and offline methods to provide open spaces for feedback on neighborhood issues,” according to a March 2011 press release that announced Lucas Diaz, an organizer within the Hispanic community, had been hired as executive director. “Finally, ONE will advance City priorities by partnering with neighborhood organizations and leaders, proactively facilitating dialog and linking key individuals to solve problems at the community level and to ensure that they are solved with combined knowledge and efforts.”

In a phone interview last week, Diaz characterized his office as one that helps communities connect to city government and said the future of the department will be “determined by community meetings.”

As an example he cited a recent a recent dust-up in New Orleans East in which community members were questioning  improvements to Lake Forest Boulevard. Diaz said his office was able to create a “more productive relationship.”

According to a “The Plan for the 21st Century,” New Orleans’ official master plan, neighborhood organizations have played a leadership role in the recovery of the city post Katrina.

But in the months before the recent reorganization, neighborhood groups had grown frustrated by the lack of progress toward a neighborhood participation program, a reform rooted in the city’s early struggle to recover from Hurricane Katrina.

Keith Twitchell, president of the Committee for a Better New Orleans and a long-time advocate of a citizen-driven process, said many grassroots groups  had become skeptical that the program would ever take shape.

H.M.K Amen, a long-time neighborhood activist in Central City and an advocate for better neighborhood engagement, said she looks forward to the next steps as a “public opportunity to examine what has been done, up to this point, and to give comments.”

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...