Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Proposed ordinance to register community councils raises questions

As the City's Department of Community Development assumes administration of the Neighborhood Support Program (NSP) from Invest in Neighborhoods, a new ordinance has been floated to amend and clarify a 1989 ordinance on just who "represents" each of the City's 52 neighborhoods.

The ordinance directs city manager Milton Dohoney Jr. to maintain a directory of Representative Community Councils, which would be required to:

  • Define and codify their geographical territories
  • Define a neighborhood resident as anyone who lives within those boundaries
  • Extend full membership, voting, and participation priveleges to all neighborhood residents ages 18 and older, without regard to whether the resident has paid a membership fee
  • Not discriminate against a resident based on housing type
  • Not allow any policy, regulation or rule that violates any local, state, or federal anti-discrimination law or ordinance
  • Require that voting privileges for non-residents be extended only through a vote of residents at the council's annual meeting
  • Require that all issues of community interest, such as NSP funding allocation, zoning considerations, liquor licensing and development considerations be up for an open vote of all residents
  • Provide appropriate and timely public notice for meetings covering all community issues of interest
  • Provide neighborhood resident vote totals to any City department or agency that is working on a particular issue
  • Refrain from campaigning on behalf of any candidate running for public office

Ordinance not finalized

Rick Dieringer, executive director of IIN, was part of the working group that was appointed by Councilmember and then-chair of the Vibrant Neighborhood Committee Laketa Cole to develop recommendations on how to better clarify the 1989 ordinance.

He says that the proposal he's seen from city solicitor John Curp diverges dramatically from the findings of his working group.

"As written, the proposed ordinance would strip from community councils the right to establish reasonable requirements for voting privileges, such as joining the organization by paying membership dues, attending a minimum number of meetings or participating in volunteer activities, or waiting a reasonable period – currently 60 days – after joining before one can vote," Dieringer says.

He argues that, as private corporations under state law, community councils have the right do decide those requirements on their own.

He says that some of those rules were made to protect the viability of the organizations and the best interests of the neighborhoods.

"Our working group concluded that the City has a legitimate interest in trying to determine whether a community council's request or position truly reflects the will of the neighborhood," Dieringer says. "Therefore, we suggested a change that calls for an open vote of residents, just like is done now on NSP proposals, on any matter a community council may convey to the City, be that a funding request, a zoning issue, liquor license issues, or any other request for City action. All other matters – elections, disposition of non-City funds, community activities not involving the City, etc. – would be left to the council to determine as it sees fit."

Dieringer worries that even the working group's suggestion could limit a council board's ability to conduct business and would make it more difficult for it to react to problems in a timely manner.

"As proposed, the new ordinance would impose upon community councils more stringent requirements for conducting votes than are in place for our political elections," he says.

Another change would require an annual community vote about whether to extend membership priveleges to non-residents, ostensibly to simplify a confusing requirement that each council grant any five resident the right to call for a vote once a year.

"I fail to see where new voting requirements contribute to the health and vitality of community councils not do they help councils be more representative of their neighborhoods," Dieringer says.

In a response to those concerns, Cole says that the ordinance is nowhere near being finalized, and is not likely to come up for a vote for several weeks.

"I agreed that revisions had to be made to many sections, which is why I presented the ordinance in the first place – to get community and neighborhood feedback," she says.

Other neighborhoods fear impacts

Oakley Community Council (OCC) president Dave Schaff doesn't see a City takeover of the NSP as the end of the world, but urges the City to treat the issue carefully.

He says that many community councils, including his, also serve as both a chamber of commerce and a residential advocacy board.

Any City ordinance dictating who can serve community councils – and who can vote – would decimate the OCC.

"The proposed ordinance would eliminate five of 12 Oakley board members, who play an instrumental role for Oakley, particularly as it concerns business development," Schaff says. "Yes, there is a caveat in the ordinance, but the mere suggestion that residents will control whether a business owner/representative can serve greatly offends me."

Schaff recommends that the City help provide checks and balances to struggling councils, but wait a year or two to assess whether a City takeover of NSP funding is really necessary.

"We elect nine Cincinnati Councilmember to establish and execute policy and operate city government because you are working day in, day out on issues," he says. "Oakley should not be subject to transactional voting, where we will see a flurry of folks, who may never attend another meeting, vote to swing an issue."

Schaff is not alone in his concern -- on April 20, Councilmember Roxanne Qualls submitted for public record 75 pages of e-mails and letters from representatives of the Walnut Hills Area Council, Over-the-Rhine Community Council, West End Community Council, Westwood Civic Association, College Hill Forum, California Community Council, Carthage Civic League, Lower Price Hill Community Council, Mount Washington Community Council, Avondale Community Council, Columbia Tusculum Community Council, and more.

Some of these issues will be discussed this afternoon at 2 PM in council's Vibrant Neighborhoods Committee.

No dollars disbursed

As of two weeks ago, 20 community councils had signed contracts with the City of Cincinnati for NSP services: Avondale, Bond Hill, Camp Washington, Carthage, College Hill, Corryville, East End, East Price Hill, Evanston, Kennedy Heights, Lower Price Hill, Madisonville, Mount Airy, North Avondale, Northside, Roselawn, South Fairmount, Spring Grove, Walnut Hills, and the West End.

Nine community councils have outstanding contracts, but have not filled out a proposal or registration forms: Columbia-Tusculum, Downtown, East Westwood, Hartwell, Hyde Park, Millvale, North Fairmount, Westwood, and Winton Hills.

No vouchers have been submitted since nine of the NSP contracts have become fully executed, and no NSP has been paid.

Moral obligation

As a moral obligation, council is considering an ordinance that would transfer $60,100 from a contingency account to the Department of Community Development to help pay for costs above the original $50,000 budgeted for administration of the programs.

Because of a break in services, council also is considering advancing NSP funds from Department of Community Development accounts to three community councils as a moral obligation for expenditures accrued prior to February 5:
  • Spring Grove Village Community Council: $1,021.90
  • Mount Washington Community Council: $681.15
  • Avondale Community Council: $501.00
"There may be future requests from Community Councils to receive approval for expenditures prior to their contract date," Dohoney says in a statement accompanying the ordinance.

Previous reading on BC:
$110K, new staffer needed to administer neighborhood support funds (3/4/09)
Invest in Neighborhoods wins NSP contract (12/9/08)
Kamuf: Look into Invest in Neighborhoods turmoil (11/5/08)
Invest in Neighborhoods under scrutiny, NSP out for bid (9/10/08)
Former Invest in Neighborhoods board member says agency 'hiding more than they're telling' (8/8/08)