Remember when? New Orleanians gather at one of numerous meetings to craft post-Katrina’s now-imperiled Citizen Participation Project. credit: Karen Gadbois

I believe there are more instances of the abridgement of freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments of those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations.

–James Madison

By David Welch, The Lens contributing opinion writer |

The New Orleans City Council will soon vote on the future of citizen participation in our city. It’s an ideal mandated by both a post-Katrina amendment to the City Charter and the city’s long-overdue master plan. But despite overwhelming popular support, it appears to be in grave peril.

The amendment, further elaborated in Chapter 15 of the city master plan, calls for creation of District Councils comprised of volunteers chosen by neighborhood groups to represent citizens of each planning district. Among other duties they would be trained to quickly distribute information such as building permits and economic opportunities in their area, explain the impact of various choices and advise City Hall decision makers about the opinions and needs of a more informed community.

All that is imperiled by a power grab-back called Amendment 19 that has been proposed by Lucas Diaz, director of the city’s Neighborhood Engagement Office.

I would like to ask why this is happening and give a brief history of how a simple and important democratic measure – duly approved by the electorate — has been systematically denigrated and now may be denied.

The Master Plan has been more than a decade in the making – far too long. Granted, the city has endured its share of distracting crises – ranging from the levee collapse and a devastating flood to a budget awash in red ink. But these challenges provide no real excuse for the city leadership’s effort to scuttle citizen participation.

Time and again during much heralded post-Katrina public meetings, when voluntary participation was at an all-time high, the public was directed to Chapter 15 of the Master Plan as the bedrock of the plan’s political legitimacy: “Citizens will have a much greater voice in the development of their neighborhoods,” it reads.

The idea was that the city would acknowledge and fund District Councils that would provide a formal channel through which neighborhood-level needs and dreams would be brought to the attention of the City Council.

The City Planning Commission finally approved the plan in early 2010, followed by the Council’s endorsement eight months later. Those approvals followed on the heels of a November 2009 referendum in which voters backed an amendment to the City Charter that gave the “force of law” to the still unfinished master plan. A plan with legal teeth meant politicians would no longer be able to disregard the master plan at their whim or under pressure from developers.

Councilmember Jackie Clarkson’s endorsement of the force-of-law provision was quoted in The Times-Picayune: “The rules won’t change in the middle of the game,” she said. “You will not be able to just whimsy and whamsy change zoning.”

But upon taking charge in early 2010, the Landrieu administration brought a new plan – and a new attitude – to bear, one that did not bode well for public participation. At town hall-style meetings in 2010 and 2011, the mayor mocked and belittled neighborhood organizations, implying that they didn’t speak for residents and didn’t deserve to be “given” funds to help educate the public, build capacity and distribute information needed for growth in the community. Volunteer leaders were acknowledged but the audience was advised, and I paraphrase here, “Don’t worry, we have these highly paid consultants and experts who will make planning decisions for you.”

Efforts to more deeply engage the public in the planning process dated at least to 2002 when the Planning Commission requested that the community give thought to the idea. It had been researched and vetted by a broad spectrum of volunteer groups when, in November 2010, the City Council flatly rejected a citizen plan by a vote of 5-0. The Council’s allies in rejecting the citizen plan were homeowner groups reluctant to share power with other residents or to embrace a spirit of citizen equality. If this was not whimsy than it must have been whamsy. In place of a more permanent apparatus for citizen participation, the Council promised to hold a series of public meetings that never happened.

Most neighborhood organizations believe that universal participation, though not fully obtainable, is an ideal that addresses problems way beyond urban planning. Crime, blight, ignorance and distrust of local officials are societal problems that can be mitigated by forums for thoughtful discussion. It’s a process that builds capacity in neighborhood groups. Moreover, the information and guidance it yields, coming as it does from credible community volunteers, is something elected leaders badly need.

The question remains: Why do away with any part of Chapter 15? If appropriated money is really in such short supply, rather than eliminate District Councils altogether, why not allow them to function on a volunteer basis until the city’s finances improve – or political leadership outgrows its nervous fear of the citizen participation now mandated by the City Charter.

Today’s municipal leadership seems determined to hold the public at bay. Rather than encourage citizen participation – the very essence of Chapter 15 – Mayor Landrieu picks and chooses among ad hoc groups fighting blight, for example, or crime. As political strategies go, it makes for press conferences that take good advantage of the mayor’s training as a drama student, but when it comes to long-term solutions to entrenched municipal problems, it’s a strategy for ineffectiveness or outright failure.

My personal belief is that the mayor, council members and staffers with the Neighborhood Engagement Office are good people who are mistakenly denying themselves the wisdom of the electorate. They are taking a path that will only diminish the success of their own plans and ambitions.

In a more enlightened and harmonious community, which should be everyone’s goal, Amendment 19 and its negative consequences would be well understood and those politicians who support it would be held accountable in future municipal elections.

David Welch is a community volunteer who has served on committees and boards of various organizations. Currently he is employed in the information technology industry and is helping to build the Gentilly Community Center of Hope.