By Karen Gadbois, The Lens staff writer |

Two events intended to foster greater community participation in New Orleans government activities will take place this week.

Residents can learn Wednesday about how other cities get the public involved in making budget decisions. On Thursday, people can offer suggestions on a city plan to create a system that informs the community about zoning changes and other land-use issues.

The second event is sponsored by the city in order to fulfill the mandate of a recent City Charter change requiring the creation of a system for citizen participation.

“The City Planning Commission envisions a sensible system for organized and effective neighborhood participation,” according to a city press release.

The effort, called the Neighborhood Participation Plan, at first aims to educate the various city agencies on how best to interact with the public, according to a draft of the plan. Overall, the end goal, according to the city press release, is to “provide all neighborhoods with timely notification of and a meaningful opportunity to comment on proposals subject to public review” and action by the City Planning Commission.

The meeting is scheduled for Thursday at Grace Episcopal Church at 3700 Canal St. from 6 to 8 p.m.

Land-use issues are frequent flashpoints in a city still struggling to recover. Attendance at any public meeting where land use is discussed, such as the City Planning Commission or the Board of Zoning Adjustments, will find any number of residents complaining that they have not been notified of pending projects near them.

The new city effort is a welcome beginning, but it only addresses part of a two-way conversation, said Keith Twitchell, president of the Committee for a Better New Orleans. His organization for years has been working on a similar comprehensive effort, dubbed a citizen participation program.

He wants the city not only to educate its staffers on public interaction, but to create a system that encourages the public to offer that interaction. And both should be developed simultaneously so one can inform the other, he said.

The two efforts are “two halves of the same circle, and it makes a lot of sense to the draw the full circle in the course of a single process,” he said.

To that end, Twtichell’s group is helping to shepherd the other event this week, a presentation Wednesday by a national group that helps to get resident voices included in the budget process.

This past budget season, some residents took the opportunity to discuss priorities with Mayor Mitch Landrieu and his staff in a series of public meetings held around the city. Although many called for a reduction in the public-safety category of the 2012 budget, Landrieu increased spending.

Twitchell said this shows that “New Orleans in not yet at a place of true participatory budgeting.”

The New Orleans Coalition on Open Governance, of which The Lens is a member, is sponsoring a visit by members of the Participatory Budgeting Project.

This event will be an opportunity to hear how other communities are dealing with limited resources and crafting their own plans for how public monies should be spent.

Twitchell said in some cities, residents are “are actually the decision makers on portions of the municipal budget.”

This meeting is also at Grace Episcopal Church, Wednesday starting at 6 p.m.

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...