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

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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  • While we greatly appreciate the coverage of this vitally important hearing, and certainly agree with the description of what has happened with attempts to create meaningful civic engagement in New Orleans over the past year, we are very disappointed that the Lens characterized the voice of the community as “Team CBNO”. The Committee for a Better New Orleans has convened and served a process through which some 200 New Orleans citizens have researched and designed the proposed New Orleans Citizen Participation Program (NOLA-CPP). So the contestants in this struggle are the people of New Orleans — NOLA-CPP, not some imaginary “Team CBNO” — and an administration that is bewilderingly unsupportive of meaningful civic engagement. Indeed, several of the people who spoke at the Master Plan hearing Tuesday night in opposition to the Neighborhood Engagement Office’s proposal to weaken the citizen participation chapter of the Master Plan were people completely unknown to CBNO, further indicating that this is a community issue and by no means proprietory to any one organization. Again, we greatly appreciate this coverage, but would hope that the Lens would achieve a higher standard of journalistic accuracy in future articles on this topic.

  • Westley Bayas

    I’ll reserve the right to comment until after my term with the City is complete.

  • Editor B

    This is outrageous.

  • NolaJ

    The real losers are those hard working citizen activists/leaders who wanted something between Team CBNO’s over organized and long term costly pseudo-government plan and do nothing offerings coming from pawns of the mayor in ONE. CPC loses too. They end up squashed in the middle with hard working citizens who care deeply and practically about the city.

  • Joseph Friend

    As one of the participants in the process of developing a Citizen Participation proposal for the City to consider, I am much in favor of the proposal. I is well thought out and will survive administration changes that the Office of Neighborhoods may not. This city needs more citizen input, not input from a top down source.

  • HMK Amen

    It is important for your readers to know that the hundreds of people who participated in the process that resulted in the current draft of a citizen participation program for the City of New Orleans were not part of a CBNO “team”. CBNO, with a staff of 2 people, can best be decribed as a facilitator of a process. CBNO was the means through which an infrastructure for convening forums, collecting input, and a resource for transporting experts to New Orleans to help inform the process based on their experience with CPPs in their respective communities.

    You fail to recognize, or acknowledge how many citizens of this city became informed and civically engaged, and who could in many cases contribute to the substance of the issue significantly (and in some cases on par with the “experts”), due to concentrated research, as well as having been steeped in a process involving learning through the ‘collective wisdom’ of people who reflected a significant variety of backgrounds and experience sitting in the same room — at the same tables in mutual respect. This was unlike any other experience of their lifetime. You can’t place all of that in a thimble called the “CBNO team”.

    I am one of many who has remained engaged in this process since before its beginning. After citizens developed real skills in planning for their respective neighborhoods following Katrina, through 3 separate planning processes, they demanded that a citizen participation program “with the force of law” be instituted at all levels of government that would have an impact on their lives. The draft of the Citizen Participation Program now in the hands of the City Planning Commission is a product of that initial declaration.

  • Non-native Born New Orleanian

    Ditto everything HMK Amen said, but clarify that the citizens who participated in this large multi-tiered process were both native-born New Orleanians, those who have been living in the city for years, and even some who came only after 2005. We are all New Orleanians, whether you like it (or us), or not. Your inability to recognize this simple fact does nothing more than drive a deeper superfluous wedge between people who are ostensibly trying to all do the same thing.

    Your provincial and parochial perspective on who is permitted to have an opinion on what affects the citizenry also does a complete disservice to your editorial, and causes me, someone who has lived here for over 10 years and remains fully engaged in several nonprofits and other volunteerships, to completely discount any value in your opinion. It’s insulting, and reminds me a lot of the post-Katrina meeting I was at where there was a legitimate disagreement, and one well-to-do woman stood up and asked the group sardonically who had been born and raised in New Orleans – obviously implying that “others'” opinions and themselves were personae non gratae.

    If you want this city to stagnate, go ahead and continue proclaiming your thoughts on the New Orleans caste system. Just don’t be surprised when you run off all those people who are doing a lot of the work and trying to help you and this city recover and grow. But don’t worry, I won’t be scared off by your tactics. Though, I also will keep my birth-heritage in the closet if you and I should cross paths in our civic lives. I’d hate for you to judge my ideas based on where I happened to be born, in which I had no say-so.

    You may think I’m making entirely too big of a deal over one adjective in the whole editorial. But that one term lends credence to an entire philosophy that permeates the article. Locals like yourself need to stop treating people who move here to enjoy and help the city, like lepers. We’re all rebuilding this village together, and one group can’t do it without the other. So learn to appreciate the diversity, instead of scorn it.

  • Anyone familiar with the editorial process at The Lens will understand that this article, as printed, deviates substantively from my original wording. However, it’s important to clarify a couple of things. (1) My use of the term “native-born locals” derives from a consensus reached by the Gallier Hall focus group last April (they were hoping ONE would hire locals who had “lived here all their lives” to serve as neighborhood liaisons, because they would better understand those groups’ nuances and unique character). The hiring of locals was, at the time, a topic of discussion among those following urban development projects. To say the Office of Neighborhood Engagement never fulfilled that request is accurate, but in so doing I never intended to judge one way or the other. “Non-Native’s” interpretation suggests a bias which I do not detect even upon careful re-reading. So, to clarify, let me state categorically that I very much admire Lucas Diaz and his former ONE cohorts, and doubt that anyone (of any background) could have done a better job under the circumstances.
    (2) As for the term “Team CBNO”, blame that one on my editor (as Keith Twitchell aptly does, above). HMK Amen is entirely correct to underscore the inadequacy of “Team CBNO” to describe the careful, considered, inclusive and refreshingly diverse group — of which she and I are both a part — hosted by CBNO and their affiliates over the years.
    Hopefully, the promise of citizen participation will flourish in New Orleans, and far outlast all of us! Judging from reader feedback I have received directly, this article elucidated some hitherto unrecognized inadequacies in the Mayor’s approach to citizen participation, and served to bring new people to the table who were unaware of the existing groundwork. Thus, I must declare the article a success despite its editorial shortcomings.

  • The Editor

    Editor’s note: Yes, the article was edited. It was then submitted to author Tim Garrett who approved it for publication. Identifying one side of the dispute as the “CBNO team” was Tim’s suggestion, a substitute for what the editor had come up with: i.e. “Team Twitchell.” Calling parties to the debate “teams” was a literary device that seemed consistent with Tim’s decision to portray the confrontation in City Council chambers as a boxing match. The article stated explicitly that Team CBNO was backed by “scores” of proponents.

  • Adam

    It is important for your readers to know that the hundreds of people who participated in the process that resulted in the current draft of a citizen participation program for the City of New Orleans were not part of a CBNO “team”.

    Very good statement, +100500