Last ONE left standing? Sucker punch whacks 'citizen participation'

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Office of Neighborhood Engagement leader Lucas Diaz addresses Planning Commission members at the hearing on citizen participation. (New Orleans Public Access TV)

By Tim Garrett, The Lens contributing opinion writer |

Tuesday’s four-hour meeting of the New Orleans Planning Commission amounted to a public showdown between two rival visions for “citizen participation” in the planning process, something that was mandated by a charter amendment in 2010.

The audience

A crowd big enough to pack the City Council chamber was augmented by additional viewers watching on public-access TV. The referees, if you will, were five planning commissioners ensconced on the chamber’s dais. But what nobody had witnessed was the lethal sucker punch thrown 10 months earlier. It gave the young upstart a huge, unfair advantage over an older and wiser adversary.

The contenders

In one corner stood the New Orleans Citizen Participation Program, the brainchild of the Committee for a Better New Orleans (CBNO) backed by scores of proponents, and represented by Keith Twitchell and Nick Kindel. Call it Team CBNO. Long the only local player in urban planning reform, Team CBNO has spent the better part of a decade hosting workshops, promoting what are considered to be urban planning’s best practices, and recruiting viable citizen-participation models from around the country, all on CBNO’s dime. They were considered a shoo-in.

In the other corner, the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Engagement (ONE), represented by its director, Lucas Diaz.  Diaz came alone to defend his “Neighborhood Participation Plan,” a newfangled alternative aimed at changing City Hall’s approach to customer service.  A real long shot if ever there was one.

The stakes

Prior to Tuesday’s meeting, ONE had petitioned City Planning to remove any mention of “District Councils” within the Master Plan text. (The layperson will be forgiven for failing to grasp the importance of the disputed paragraphs. Suffice it to say that such councils are an integral component of most citizen-participation models worldwide, including those explored by Team CBNO during its extensive research.) They came prepared to argue why eliminating them was a very bad idea.

When it was their turn to speak, the Team CBNO contingent pleaded, “Keep district councils!”  To exclude them would be tantamount to sawing off the spokes of a wagon wheel, thereby severing the outer rim (neighborhoods at large) from the central hub (City Hall in this analogy), the very things that citizen participation programs are intended to link.

A couple of Team CBNO’s supporters took the matter further, warning that Planning Commission staff, by making the changes Diaz had requested, risk running afoul of certain legally-defined parameters, such as which portions of the Master Plan they edit.  Others insisted that even ONE’s own plan, thus neutered, could fall prey to the whims of a presiding mayor or, lacking community oversight, be forced to do his bidding unchallenged.

The comeback kid

Speaking well beyond his two-minute countdown, Diaz laid out an 848-word rebuttal, contending that his proposed edits were intended not to consolidate ONE’s power, but to maximize flexibility within the Master Plan. But when pressed by the presiding commissioners, Diaz conceded that the amendments are not essential to his plan. (Though asked by the Planning Commission chairman to comment on the legality of incorporating the requested edits, the City Attorney remained mute on that point.)

Councilwoman Jackie Clarkson, co-author of the Charter amendment creating the Master Plan and an outspoken proponent of citizen participation in urban planning, also stepped to the podium. Acting as both referee and cheerleader, Clarkson helped move the discussion along by offering some lighthearted advice to the Planning Commission: “New Orleans needs a participation plan moving forward.  This is a tough call.  I’m glad you are the ones deciding, and not me.”

After 31 grueling minutes of verbal sparring, with both sides feeling they had landed their best shots, the commissioners withheld a decision in deference to the evening’s full docket. (If I were a betting man, I’d say Team CBNO won this round handily.)

On the ropes

What spectators did not know prior to Tuesday evening’s bout is that ONE’s third employee in as many months had just quit.  Westley Bayas’ resignation notice was made public less than 12 hours after the meeting ended, its content echoing the same sentiment expressed by the two neighborhood liaisons – Katrina Badger and Jeffrey Kugler – who preceded him out the door:

“Thanks, it’s been fun.  I’m outta here.  If you need anything, talk to Lucas Diaz.”

It would appear that the Office of Neighborhood Engagement, barely 10 months into its existence, is foundering.  When half your staffers jump ship in mid-stream, it’s a sign that something is seriously wrong.   Perhaps they were the first to realize that if ONE were ever put in the position of supporting a full-fledged citizen-participation program, it would instantly collapse.

Down for the count

Almost a year ago, people began to suspect they had been swindled out of a sure bet. Team CBNO had put together a meticulous soup-to-nuts document embodying both an “internal” component (for city government to adopt) and an “external” framework (for the community to follow).  Now that the public can finally begin comparing ONE’s Johnny-come-lately offering with Team CBNO’s mature work, they are wising up and asking, “What happened here?  Is Team CBNO out of the running?”

What happened is that ONE swallowed up whatever paltry funding was lying around for implementing a participation process.  In other words, ONE spent 100% of the money just to create an “internal” plan (less than 50% as robust as Team CBNO’s plan, which took years to craft).  Landrieu has confirmed as much at various Town Hall meetings.  When asked about the prospect of New Orleans ever getting a working framework for citizen participation, the Mayor responded, “With ONE in place, there’s no money for anything else.”

The sucker punch

What Landrieu hopes nobody will call attention to is how the Office of Neighborhood Engagement came into being.

Almost overnight, ONE materialized out of thin air, created by mayoral mandate.  Landrieu then grafted his new creation onto the executive branch org chart just below his own office, effectively making ONE answerable only to him.  No community involvement, no discussion, no bringing established experts on board, no hiring of native-born locals.  Not even the fledgling office’s purpose was made clear.  It was a blank slate. .

Instead, in true learn-as-we-go fashion, the first ONE workshop, hosted at Gallier Hall, involved asking invited guests (neighborhood leaders only; no press allowed) what its mission statement ought to be.  For two awkward hours, attendees scratched their heads and obliged host and emcee Diaz by scribbling random ideas on paper easels set up next to each round table.

The asterisk after ONE’s name

If the purpose of Landrieu’s Office of Neighborhood Engagement was ever, indeed, to “engage neighborhoods,” it has failed spectacularly. ONE has not yet sponsored a single open, public meeting (though the office did host three invitation-only brainstorming sessions).  Nor has it established a community meeting calendar, discussion forum, online website, neighborhood map, organization roster or Facebook presence — any of the things a citizen wanting to engage might come looking for.

ONE has likewise ducked any public mention on the City’s website (NOLA.gov).  Typing “Office of Neighborhood Engagement” into the Search box turns up the old job listings but little else.  Scouring the official Phone Directory reveals not a single listing for ONE or its officers, not even for Lucas Diaz himself.

And the losers are …

Seasoned spectators realize the “New Orleans Participation Game” is now fixed in favor of ONE, no matter its reputation, competence or level of output.

So long as the Office of Neighborhood Engagement persists in its current guise – consuming all available resources – it will continue to squelch fair competition from truly participatory players, like Team CBNO.  This means the real losers in the “citizen participation” arena are – sadly and paradoxically — the citizens of New Orleans.

Tim Garrett is owner/director of NOLAhoods.com, a community advocacy network.  

 

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