No Participation Means No Power for Neighborhood Groups

wedge

The Wedge held its annual meeting and board election on April 16, 2014.

Last week, a Minneapolis City Council member said something obvious regarding the unrepresentative composition of neighborhood associations and their influence on the development process. So, of course, the associations were steamed. Lisa Bender, the offending Council Member, was reportedly pelted with abuse at a Whittier Alliance meeting earlier this week. And here’s an excellent rundown of similar displeasure in Lowry Hill East.

Let me begin by saying I have no use for neighborhood associations. I’m not someone who sees an angry crowd at a televised town hall meeting and thinks, Gee, I’d like to spend more time with those guys. If I’m going to watch Swamp People, I can do it at home.

Clearly, I’m not the only one who has better things to do. Many neighborhood associations, as currently constituted, do not speak for their entire neighborhoods. The populations of Lowry Hill East and Whittier are both 80-90% renter. There’s an age gap as well. More than 62% of Lowry Hill East residents are 18 to 34 years of age; only 18% are age 45 or older (2010 Census). If you’ve ever attended a meeting, as I have, you’d think those percentages were reversed. The only demographic these groups can rightly claim to represent are a small minority of older homeowners.

But let’s say we wanted to create a legitimately representative neighborhood group that could credibly lobby for the interests of its residents. Who better to give advice to neighborhood associations than a guy who thinks they’re useless? I promise I’m only trying to help.

More & Better Information

First, you have to answer the age-old question: Who are you, and why are you here? I’m not attending monthly meetings, and neither is 99.9% of the neighborhood you say that you represent. The Star Tribune isn’t coming to your meetings to blog and tweet about them.

So, put everything online. It’s your responsibility to get the information out to your residents, because they’re not coming to you. If you’re only serving the 10 people who show up to a meeting, then you’re not representing a neighborhood.

At a board election in Lowry Hill East, candidates are nominated and immediately deliver a brief speech that consists of something like I’m a 30-year resident and an architect. A short time later, the ballots are cast. I can’t say I feel good basing my vote on that information. Not everyone has an intimate knowledge of their neighbors accumulated over 30 years of devout attendance at meetings. It should be expected of potential candidates to answer a substantive questionnaire and post it to a website well in advance (Whittier does this).

And after the election, tell me how many votes each candidate got. It’s a small thing, but you’ve told us that you want to be a legitimate layer in the process of government–transparency is just the kind of thing good governments do.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with a lack of information if you’re simply an informal social club (with a pile of money coming from the city). But if you want to be taken seriously as the one true voice of an entire neighborhood–as you often claim–then the content of your website is vastly more important than your monthly meeting.

Make It Convenient

When it comes to the process of voting, my neighborhood association’s election takes place during a five minute window around 8:30 pm on a Wednesday (at the end of a roughly three-hour annual meeting). This is a recipe for non-participation. Hold the voting open all day, all week, or all month; hold it online; hold it by mail; or try an all of the above approach.

Do whatever you need to do to make participation as convenient as possible. If I can’t or don’t care to attend a meeting, I should be able to go to your website and feel like I did. Remember, we barely know that you exist. Put in the time and effort to get our attention, because you need us more than we need you.

Participation Is Your Problem, Not Ours

Neighborhood organizations have no formal power. What power they have is symbolic; and it amounts to nothing if they can’t claim a broad, representative swathe of their neighborhood as participants.

So, when a board member of the Lowry Hill East Neighborhood Association (blogging anonymously, for reasons inexplicable) says, “Choosing not to vote, in essence, is voting,” she’s right. Choosing not to vote is a vote against the legitimacy of a neighborhood group. The organization’s power is proportional to the number of people participating.

Apathy says more about neighborhood associations than it does about the residents who don’t show up. If a group isn’t doing everything they can to increase their constituency–the sole source of their power–then they don’t deserve to have a prominent voice in the process.

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25 Responses to No Participation Means No Power for Neighborhood Groups

  1. Steven Prince May 16, 2014 at 9:05 am #

    John,

    Your suggestions about transparency are valid – LHENA relied for years on the now defunct Wedge Newspaper which didn’t come out often enough to meet the need for instant information in the 21st century.

    But all the LHENA bashing because its “not representative” misses the point. After all, more Wedge residents showed up for the LHENA Annual meeting and stayed around to vote than voted for Marion Greene in the special election we just had for Hennepin County Commissioner. Marion Greene is still County Commissioner, and voter turn was not low (and older) because she and her opponent wanted it that way.

    Neighborhood groups are for the residents who care about the neighborhood, it should be no surprise that involved membership skews toward those who have a long-term stake in the neighborhood. I don’t agree that voting should be allowed for those who can’t be bothered to attend the annual meeting – this is a neighborhood organization, not a municipal election.

    So if neighborhood groups are not representative, what are they? They are organizations with historic, planning, transportation and land-use knowledge and experience that doesn’t exist anywhere else in the City – certainly not at the Planning Department or Commission.

    Neighborhood groups, when they work correctly provide a forum for involved and informed neighbors to consult in the political process by which land-use decisions are made in our City. They are not decision-makers, they advise and consult.

    This is a very good thing, when I have some free time I’ll write a post about all the things in the WEdge that would be very different (and very undesirable) but for LHENA’s involvement over the years.

    It is one thing to figure out new ways to involve more residents. I applaud Lisa Bender’s stated commitment to doing that. But let’s not throw out the baby with the bath water. Facebook and social media are not going to replace face-to-face meetings between competing stake-holders. It is inconvenient and time consuming, but if you care about what happens in a particular place that’s what you need to do, not just post blog comments on social media.

    • Anton Schieffer
      Anton Schieffer May 16, 2014 at 10:37 am #

      I don’t think anyone is questioning the neighborhood groups’ expertise. They certainly know their neighborhoods as intimately as anyone. But because the boards are made up primarily of older homeowners, they often have different views about what our city should look like. Views of neighborhood boards do not necessarily reflect those of residents, and their advice should be always be taken with a grain of salt.

      Also, comparing LHENA elections to a special election for Hennepin County Commissioner (which had a lower turnout than the primary, which was 6%) is setting the bar pretty low.

      • Ryan Johnson
        Ryan Johnson May 16, 2014 at 2:58 pm #

        Also, since neighborhood organizations aren’t really an official body of the city in the same way that other levels of government are, neighborhoods have no real duty to be as transparent with what they’re working on. They have literally no duty, and what we get is essentially out of good will, or available funding for staffers.

        It’s almost like neighborhoods need some form of governmental legitimacy to open up and gain more participants. Until then, we rely on news releases and mail, and if we’re lucky, maybe they do have a website where they post minutes or something (and some do! Example: http://www.longfellow.org/documents/).

        But to fill in the gap of involvement, it seems like dozens of online solutions have sprung up… I kind of wish someone with more expertise in these would post a review of what exists, ’cause there’s a lot, but from my perspective, none of it is really taking off– otherwise those of us with complaints over transparency and involvement would all be somewhere together. … And no, I don’t feel like the issues list is enough, it also engages only a small subset of people using the internet to be involved in their community. 😉

  2. Nick Magrino
    Nick Magrino May 16, 2014 at 9:20 am #

    I both agree and disagree with this. Yes, many (all?) neighborhood groups aren’t that representative of their neighborhoods. But if you’re seriously suggesting that, because it’s more fun to watch TV than spend three hours every two years with people you don’t especially like hanging out with in order to vote, than that’s on you.

    Speaking from experience, no millennial talking about how busy they are is 10% as busy as they say they are. If something is important to you, go do it. Jeez.

    • John May 16, 2014 at 10:01 am #

      Fair enough but don’t you think it’s a bit screwy that the barrier for participating in a neighborhood election is higher than it is for a municipal, state, federal election. I voted for city council in November. I’ll I had to do was show up and vote. I was in and out in 15 minutes.

      John, great article. I completely agree with your points.

      • John Edwards
        John Edwards May 16, 2014 at 4:47 pm #

        And you could have voted from 7 am-7 pm in that city election. I guess Steven subscribes to the theory that voting should be as difficult as possible so that we only end up with “Premium Voters”.

    • Ryan Johnson
      Ryan Johnson May 16, 2014 at 3:09 pm #

      I agree with the idea that no millennial talking about how busy they are is 10% as busy (I have 8 unpaid internships, and 4 jobs), but even apart from the fake busy factor: are millennials interested in the prospect of neighborhood meetings as the only means of participating?

      As far as I’m concerned there are a few sets of people who do not (loosely defined) participate. Behold my Rumsfeldian rubric: (1) people who know and can’t, (2) people who don’t know and can’t, (3) people who don’t know and can; and then the vaunted 4th category: people who know and can! But, maybe these people can be subdivided into (4a): people who know and can and don’t, and (4b): people who know and can and do.

      Neighborhoods need to figure out how to reach out to all of these kinds of people, to fill up that final category. It doesn’t matter why people are busy, or whether they actually are, but what matters is that overcoming these things takes some sort of clear evidence of worth. It seems like many neighborhoods really haven’t demonstrated this to a larger audience of potentials.

      There are probably dozens of people at streets.mn who are brilliantly aware of policy, but just don’t because they feel like it’s hopeless. Part of me thinks they should have hope, because with a little effort, you can do a lot with neighborhood-level issues– the problem is that there are very few avenues for what counts as neighborhood participation, and this cuts out a lot of people.

      • Ryan Johnson
        Ryan Johnson May 16, 2014 at 3:11 pm #

        For clarity, my >sarcasm< tags went missing in the statement about 8 unpaid internships. I do not have 8 unpaid internships, that sounds like failure.

      • Bill Lindeke
        Bill Lindeke May 16, 2014 at 4:29 pm #

        Love your Rumsfeldian logic!

      • Peter Bajurny May 16, 2014 at 4:30 pm #

        I think this post and the related one from a few days ago have inspired me to actually get involved in my neighborhood association. Seward, I’m coming for you!

        • Ben Walen May 16, 2014 at 7:01 pm #

          Peter, the SNG board meets at 7 pm on the 4th Wednesday of each month at Matthews Park Center. Probably also of interest to you would be the SNG Community Development Committee, which meets monthly on the 2nd Tuesday of the month, also at 7 PM at Matthews Park Center. We gladly welcome you to participate!

          Feel free to contact me at benwalen at yahoo dot com if you have questions.

          Ben Walen
          Board Co-president, Seward Neighborhood Group

    • John Edwards
      John Edwards May 16, 2014 at 4:37 pm #

      Nick, that was a joke. I don’t really watch Swamp People. And I voted at LHENA.

      My point was, if these groups without formal power are irrelevant to their own residents, then aren’t they just plain irrelevant? This is an issue these groups should be eager to fix.

      • Bill Lindeke
        Bill Lindeke May 16, 2014 at 5:12 pm #

        Neighborhood groups are not irrelevant. They carry a lot of weight with elected officials, city staff, and/or appointed commissions. Often, if a neighborhood groups doesn’t support a project, it will be difficult to get it done. That’s not always the case, and it’s changing, but that has been my experience over in St Paul (for better and/or for worse).

        In a way, it doesn’t matter if the group makes the “right decision.” It matters whether it’s democratic and representative. Just because you are right, doesn’t mean you are doing it right. There are all kinds of stories of neighborhood groups making heroic stands to stop bad projects, making heroic stands to stop good projects, spurring mega in-fighting, forming splinter groups, and on and on. I could tell you these stories until you thought your head with was filled with melting cotton candy.

        The questions we have to ask: Is this the right way to do local “representative” politics? Is there a better way? How important should outreach be? How can we incentivize inclusivity and diversity?

  3. Bill Lindeke
    Bill Lindeke May 16, 2014 at 10:36 am #

    This isn’t just about the Wedge. Outreach and community engagement is a big deal no matter where you live. The demographic and economic data that John includes here is very problematic for people who claim that neighborhood groups are meaningfully representative. I have a problem with the statement that Steven makes:

    “Neighborhood groups are for the residents who care about the neighborhood, it should be no surprise that involved membership skews toward those who have a long-term stake in the neighborhood. I don’t agree that voting should be allowed for those who can’t be bothered to attend the annual meeting – this is a neighborhood organization, not a municipal election.”

    If neighborhood groups are going to claim to be democratic in some sense, or represent the city in some sense, than statements that delegitimize renters and/or people with less free time are deeply troubling, and remind me of any number of historically reprehensible moments in US history (that I won’t go into here).

    There should be an obligation on the part of neighborhood groups to include renters, women, people of color, people who speak other languages, poor people, etc. It’s extremely difficult, but at least John’s post contains a few good ideas.

  4. Kyle May 16, 2014 at 1:51 pm #

    I’ve spent almost seven years begging and pleading anyone with a heartbeat to show up to SENA meetings and most importantly, SENA committee meetings. And it remains the same general regulars at the committee meetings, plotting and planning the neighborhoods direction. Here and there someone shows up for a while, makes a few meetings then “poof,” never to be seen again. We see one new regular a year on average, if I’d have to guess. The Board sees more turnover and new faces but in my biased opinion the real neighborhood work gets done at the Committee level, not the Board level.

    So at this point I take full advantage of the lack of volunteer participation and involvement by being heavily involved in many of the projects that impact me the greatest, and I make my decisions and recommendations accordingly. I’m not making totally selfish or bad decisions, but I am pro-business and pro-homeowner, pro-vehicle and pro-growth, so I really don’t know if I am ever making decisions supported by the majority of the neighborhood.

    But that’s their fault. Not mine. Get involved, or to the volunteers go the spoils of decisions.

    • Ryan Johnson
      Ryan Johnson May 16, 2014 at 3:46 pm #

      This was my same experience with Whittier several years ago. I went because they wanted input on improving walkability in Whittier, and wanted to solicit questions on transit. I offered my opinions.

      The person leading the meeting, who I believe was the owner of Black Forest, shot them down as “pipe dreams”, but after the meeting the Met Council representative present came up and thanked me for my insightful comments, and asked me where I’d lived that had inspired them. My takeaway from that was: the Met Council liked what I said, but the neighborhood representative found them scary and weird. Not necessarily inspiring of more participation, specifically when ones input is directly insulted by neighborhood honchos.

    • Bill Lindeke
      Bill Lindeke May 16, 2014 at 4:50 pm #

      “But that’s their fault. Not mine. Get involved, or to the volunteers go the spoils of decisions.”

      This is the basic question about neighborhood group outreach. If you have a meeting “open to the public” and few people attend, whose fault is it?

      • Kyle May 16, 2014 at 5:13 pm #

        There is a dual responsibility.

        The neighborhood group has to have appropriate outreach, of which I would be surprised if there was a single active neighborhood group which doesn’t as more volunteers is always the goal. SENA does outreach through our websites, social media and paper newsletter (which goes to every address in the neighborhood at considerable expense) clearly showing all public meetings. We’ve actually pleaded for more volunteers and for more people to be involved to help chart our neighborhoods direction.

        SENA staff emails everyone who has expressed an interest in SENA or a SENA committee the dates, times and agendas of each meeting. And we are lucky to be home base for e-Democracy so I believe SENA has the largest neighborhood message board for sharing information. e-Democracy is also actively trying to build minority outreach into their model, though I cannot speak to its success. So the effort is there, in spades.

        Still, most meetings have the same six to ten people.

        So there comes a point where it is OK to blame people for not showing up at meetings.

        • Bill Lindeke
          Bill Lindeke May 16, 2014 at 5:29 pm #

          Yeah, the end is where I disagree with you. If nobody is coming to the meetings, change how the meetings are done. Shift the meaning of the word “meeting.”

          Here’s an example of one project that did this well: http://tcsidewalks.blogspot.com/2012/09/up-from-tokenism-will-charles-avenue.html

          I’ll past the punchline below, and this is just one idea. There are probably many ways to go about increasing participation.

          [from the post linked above] “Second, the organizers didn’t rely on public meetings or media campaigns. Instead, they held a series of block parties along the corridor. They got permission from homeowners to close off the street for a few hours on a Friday, put out food donated from a local restaurant, and set up a bunch of activities based on the themes of public art, public space, and urban design.

          As I understand it, the decision to use block parties as organizing tools was crucial because it overcame some significant spatial and temporal barriers to citizen participation. Instead of asking people to give up their free time, leave their homes, and go to a strange location for some unknown “meeting,” people could simply follow their noses out their front doors. Kids played in the street while parents looked at different alternatives for street design, asked questions, and discussed the city’s intentions and potential plans. The end result was a successful grant application for street designed around traffic calming, bicycling, and safe pedestrian access.”

          • Kyle May 16, 2014 at 6:14 pm #

            While I don’t discount the fact the fun filled block parties or community carnivals are great opportunities to engage with a traditionally disengaged public, block parties and carnivals are a terribly difficult option in Minnesota for a full half a year.

            SENA has used events like this to try to gather big ticket consensus on projects and direction, with success. But what is the comparable idea from November to April (or even to May, considering the wet cold spring we’re having in 2014.) And who runs these large community events? Who pays for them? Even coffee and donuts can be challenging to have donated in my neighborhood group experience. Staff funding is getting harder and harder to come by and as we are discussing, engaged volunteers are rare. So redefining or shifting the word meeting doesn’t change the administrative fact many projects take years to see to completion and require constant input and shifting of goals and priorities.

            For instance, I worked on finalizing a rain garden in SENA for three years. THREE YEARS of meetings and discussions and comments and plannings, just for a tiny rain garden! And you know what, in my opinion the rain garden is a lot better than if the city designed the rain garden without input. I and a few volunteers saw the opportunity to impact the design process and as a result our neighborhood has a nice new little meeting place and a number of other neighbors (who never volunteered nor added any input) finally have dry basements as the storm water was diverted away from their backyards and alleys.

            This reinforces the importance of community based “project management” to the direction that the City take and they can’t be overstated as you mentioned your response above. This alone makes even the same ole’ same ole’ volunteers tremendously valuable to the neighborhood regardless of their make-up.

            Perhaps this whole Wedge density issue seems to be an outlier, there cannot really be that many instances of a small group of “non-representative” volunteers in neighborhood organizations making recommendations that fly in the face of the local community?

            I cannot overstate the tremendous importance on volunteers showing up in a February at 7pm to the run-down, cold neighborhood office to put decisions and your names to paper. Not always a fun evening. And on those days, frankly, I’m no longer as concerned any more about the depth of community involvement as the effort has already been expended – if it’s so important to a neighbor, they will show up or at minimum email staff their concerns.

            As such there simply comes a point where you cannot maximize involvement any longer to a disengaged populace, and the responsibility for non-involvement lays at the feet of those not engaged.

    • John Edwards
      John Edwards May 16, 2014 at 5:01 pm #

      Do you want Kyle the “evil, pro-car insider / whistle blower” to make all your decisions? Then stop watching Swamp People and come to a meeting.

      Seriously though, I appreciate the comment. I’m getting the sense that many people currently involved with neighborhood organizations really value low participation rates. So I’m less than optimistic they’d be interested in fixing the issue.

  5. Cameron Conway
    Cameron Conway May 19, 2014 at 8:11 am #

    It’s really interesting… it might just be because Uptown development has seemed to take place around but not in CARAG, but our neighborhood group dynamic is infinitely tamer than what appears to be taking place in Whitter and LHE. We had elections for an empty board seat that took… five minutes? I’m a dirty urbanist renter and was accepted pretty immediately… even at this point, I’m not even sure who rents/owns on our board. I wouldn’t say my group is actively pro-development, but this kind of foaming anger just isn’t there at all.

    I assume we’ll see the flip side of that now that Ackerburg owns Calhoun Square and the adjacent lot (across from the Walkway), which will hopefully be developed soon. At the same time, I hope it’ll be a slam dunk. I’m fairly sure the HPC has no interest in deeming that weed-strewn lot as a historic resource, so less controversy there. Whatever goes there would also end up blocking a huge ugly parking garage, so several wins.

    Out of curiosity, are neighborhood meetings open to the public? As a dirty no good renter person (from outside LHE no less), I’ve always felt a bit apprehensive showing up to neighborhood meetings outside of my own. I’d love to see what makes the dynamic so different between immediately adjacent neighborhoods.

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