The New Orleans Citizen Participation Project

 
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Spring is busting out all over New Orleans, and CBNO is busting out in search of community input and engagement!

We have begun conducting surveys of residents, neighborhoods and businesses about the City Planning Commission's Neighborhood Participation Plan (NPP), which is the first major piece of our comprehensive Citizen Participation Program to be adopted by the city.  The NPP requires any applicant seeking any action by the Planning Commission to meet with the nearby residents and neighborhood association before the application process can begin.  This is a vital first step towards meaningful community participation in New Orleans.

Working with the Planning Commission and our partners at the Neighborhoods Partnership Network, we have designed an objective survey tool to gauge the effectiveness of the NPP.  This has several purposes; key among them is to identify anything in the NPP that may need to be improved, and (hopefully) to demonstrate overall that it is indeed a valuable tool for both preserving neighborhood character and promoting quality economic development.  Assuming the surveys do indicate this, it will help us to make sure that the NPP is not weakened in any way when the city's new Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance is adopted later this year (the NPP is part of the current CZO).  Good results will also help make the case for expanding the NPP to cover other departments with a high level of impact on residents and neighborhoods, like Public Works and the Sewerage and Water Board.

With the high stakes, it has not been without a little trepidation that we have begun doing the surveys, but we are pleased to report that both businesspeople and residents seem to be having very positive experiences with the NPP.  We have identified a few instances where applicants followed the letter but not the spirit of the NPP, but in most cases, the business owners have truly taken this to heart, and the residents are responding positively.  Full survey results will not be available until June, but we are very pleased to see that the initial results strongly endorse this big step towards inclusive, structured civic engagement in New Orleans.

Our related work on creating more open and accountabile city budgeting processes is also going well.  We were recently awarded a grant from the Sunlight Foundation to create a new website that will allow any New Orleans resident to track city spending compared to the adopted budget, and will generally shed some more light on the budget process.  All the candidates who were successful in the recent municipal elections signed pledges from the Forward New Orleans Coalition, of which CBNO is a member, to make changes in the budget process that would allow for more meaningful and timely community input into the city budget, and we will be working with coalition partners to make sure that city officials do follow through on this.  Finally, we are developing a steering committee to oversee our work to bring Participatory Budgeting to New Orleans; the committee is being populated by residents from all over the city as well as representatives from neighborhood and community coalitions.  We initially had some difficulty getting people to engage on this (city budgeting not being the sexiest topic under the sun), but in the last month the pace has accelerated rapidly, and we expect to have this group up and running by June.

Wherever you may be reading this, we hope that both spring and strong community participation are in your air too!  Thank you for caring, and for supporting our work to create equity and opportunity for all New Orleanians.

It is election season in New Orleans:  on February 1, we will vote for mayor and six of the seven City Council seats (one incumbent did not draw an opponent).  It has been exciting to see that civic engagement and reforming the city budget process to include meaningful community input have been high-visibility issues during the campaigns.  Coalitions such as the strong Forward New Orleans group have made improving input into the budget process part of their platforms, which they ask candidates to sign on to; and questions about citizen participation and budget reform have been a constant at various candidate forums.

That said, not all candidates have embraced forceful positions on resident input.  Thus the upcoming elections could result in a mayor and strong Council majority in favor; or a mayor opposed and a weak Council majority in favor.  The plus side is that either way, we will still have majority Council support for this work, and we will come out of the campaign with greater visibility for the issues and stronger support in both neighborhoods and the business community.

Meanwhile, the work of the Citizen Participation Project goes on.  One of our top priorities is building on the passage last year of the City Planning Neighborhood Participation Plan (NPP), which is basically the Early Notification System from our full Citizen Participation Plan (CPP) model.  Currently, we are working on the following:

- Developing an objective evaluation tool for residents, neighborhood and businesses that have experienced the new NPP, to demonstrate how well it is working and make any recommendations for refinements.

- Continuing to make presentations to neighborhood and business groups about the NPP, to make sure that all are well informed and able to derive the most benefit from the NPP.

- Monitoring the progress on the rewrite of the Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance, which contains the NPP legislation, to ensure that it is compatible with the NPP.

- Identifying additional city agencies and departments to which we can expand the NPP.  Examples would be the Department of Public Works, the Sewerage and Water Board, and the Historic District Landmarks Commission.

We are also working to complete a Blight Resource Guide, which will be a tool for residents and neighborhoods to combat blight in their communities, beyond what city government is accomplishing.  This project has taken longer than we had hoped, but a comprehensive draft has been prepared and we are in the review stage, with a target of a spring publication date.

Work also continues with our partner Puentes New Orleans in the Latino Community of Interest project.  We have completed the second Latino Community Survey; more than 300 Latino residents answered questions mostly pertaining to health care and education, two top issues identified in the first Community Survey.  We are analyzing the data right now, and should have the report published within the next two months.  We appreciate the support and partnership with the New Orleans Department of Health in conducting this survey.

Work also continues on the Neighborhood Boundary Mapping project.  The city recently released a map of what it described as neighborhood association boundaries, but because this also included merchant groups, community development corporations, main street organizations and many other groups, it is full of overlaps and is thus confusing and difficult to use.  We are optimistic that after the elections, we can sit down with city officials and explore opportunities to collaborate on the neighborhood -- not neighborhood organization -- maps.

As always, the CPP work has many facets.  CBNO staff participated in some campaign training in late 2013, and have organized the work more into a campaign structure, which we think will further enhance our capacity to move the project forward.  We remain extremely grateful for the support from the Global Giving community; we wish everyone a happy, prosperous and civically engaged New Year!

The big win finally got put in the books, and we are happily at work consolidating the victory benefits!

Thirteen months after it was initially approved by the New Orleans City Planning Commission ... three months after it was approved as policy by the New Orleans City Council ... multiple meetings later than it was supposed to be as opponents made a last-ditch effort to kill it ... the City Council adopted amendments to the city's Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance that put the Early Notification System from our Citizen Participation Program into law.

Called the Neighborhood Participation Plan (NPP) by the Planning Commission, the new law mandates that virtually any public or private sector project that will require any action by the Commission must first be brought to the residents and neighborhood association that will be impacted by it.  Until the residents and neighborhood are notified, a meeting has been conducted, and a report on the comments received (and the applicant's response to them) has been filed, the application process cannot proceed.

Progressive business owners have already begun using this approach, and even before the NPP was placed into law, there were two high-profile situations where a business proposal that initially met with strong opposition from residents and the neighborhood association received final approval after the owner met with the neighbors and resolved the concerns to everyone's satisfaction (ironically, both businesses received their approvals from the Council at a meeting where the NPP itself was deferred).  Beyond question, we will see many more of these outcomes, where commerce proceeds while neighborhood quality of life is preserved -- and even enhanced.

CBNO is doing two things to ensure the success of the NPP.  First, we are doing presentations to business organizations, and some neighborhood groups, to inform them about the NPP and make sure they know how to be effective and inclusive in using it.  Second, we are developing an evaluation tool so that we quantify its efficacy, and also so that after a period of time, we can recommend any tweaks that might improve it.  Thus far we have presented to more than 100 business people, and have been very gratified at the positive responses we have received.  The era of the much-abhorred "Planning by Surprise" in New Orleans truly is coming to an end.

On another front, we are in the final stages of completing our second Latino Community Survey, with partner organization Puentes New Orleans.  This is part of our Latino Community of Interest project of the Citizen Participation Program.  The follow-up survey was requested by Latino community leaders and also the city Department of Health, and focuses on health and education issues that Latino residents face.  The Health Department has committed to using the findings to improve its capacity to deliver health information and programs to Latino residents, and CBNO and Puentes will similarly work with schools and other education organizations to improve education outcomes for Latino students and families.  We were aided in the survey design by expert volunteers from Tulane University, and they will also help us to analyze that data, which will give even more value, credibility and weight to the data.

Finally, we have continued our work to reform the municipal budgeting process in New Orleans.  While this seems like a pretty dry and arcane subject, we have found a strong appetite for involvement on the part of community members throughout the city.  We have done a number of teach-ins and other information sessions, and generated a substantial turnout of residents for the Budget Town Halls that preceded the mayor's submission of the budget to the City Council.  We are organizing this effort into a formal campaign, and are assembling a steering committee that will have a majority of the seats held by community members.  The next major step will be an unconference in mid-January to bring budgeting information to even more residents, and to help set priorities and objectives for the campaign moving forward.  Just a hint here: we would love to have your support for putting on this event!

So, it has been an exciting and productive time for the Citizen Participation Project, with significant progress, increased momentum, and even greater opportunities ahead.  We appreciate your interest in this important work, and thank you so much for your support.

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Perhaps it is just the summer heat in New Orleans, but things have been moving more slowly than we would like over the past few months.  While our work to bring Participatory Budgeting to New Orleans is engaging a much greater number of people, implementation of the Neighborhood Participation Plan (NPP) is on hold as the City Council repeatedly defers votes on amendments and final passage (among the many quirks of local government is that despite unanimous passage of the NPP in May by the Council, it still requires one more vote before it is formally adopted).

For the third consecutive time, the Council deferred the NPP at its August 8 meeting.  Ironically, at the same meeting, final approval was given to three businesses whose initial proposals were met with considerable neighborhood resistance but who ultimately had the support of their neighbors and neighborhood associations after meeting with them.  This is exactly what the NPP will accomplish; and it will make this kind of outcome the norm in New Orleans rather than something rare and remarkable.  With concrete evidence in front of them of the value of the Plan, it was all the more disappointing to see its final adoption deferred once again -- this time, supposedly at the request of New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu.  We have been told yet again that the NPP will receive final approval at the next Council meeting; but it is nothing short of amazing that what would be a slam dunk anywhere else gets turned into a political football in New Orleans.  Nevertheless, we are forging ahead with implementation tools and strategies, working with our Citizen Advisory Team, the Planning Commission staff and our partners in the New Orleans Coalition on Open Governance (NOCOG; www.nocog.org).

Much cheerier news on the Participatory Budgeting front.  The NOCOG PB NOLA campaign, with which CBNO is closely involved and which links directly to the citizen participation infrastructure work, has conducted two "teach-ins" in the last three weeks.  Not only is this informing more New Orleans residents about opportunities to have input into the city budgeting process, we have now enlisted a number of community members into working with us on the campaign.  Community engagement is great; community ownership is even more powerful.  Further acceleration of this campaign is inevitable.

In late July, the National Council of La Raza national conference took place in New Orleans, with CBNO partner Puentes New Orleans serving as the local host.  CBNO served on the conference host committee, and teamed up with Puentes and the Latino Forum to put on a workshop during the conference.  Our presentation focused on results from the 2012 CBNO-Puentes Latino Community Survey, highlighting obstacles and opportunities relating to Latino residents and civic engagement.  Also during the conference, we debuted our follow-up survey, focusing on issues of health care and education for Latino residents.  These were identified as priority issues in the first survey, as well as in conversations with local Latino leaders.  The city's Department of Health, which has already used findings from the first survey to improve access to health care information and services for Latinos, helped design the new survey, along with several prominent Latino education and faith leaders.  Surveys will be conducted throughout the fall, and the findings will be used to advocate for changes in policies and practices to produce better outcomes in both areas for New Orleans Latinos.

Slogging through the world of politics is never fun, but we will absolutely persist.  We are appreciative of the many local officials who do support meaningful civic engagement, and also of the encouragement and support we receive from colleagues and supporters from afar.  We think of all of you as being part of our team, and could not do this work without you!

We are very happily celebrating the final step in the City of New Orleans' formal adoption of both policy and legal code that establishes the Early Notification System of the NOLA CPP model in our city.  First passed in policy form by the City Planning Commission last July, the policy document and amendments to the City's Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance were unanimously adopted by the City Council on May 2.  The policy is officially called the "Neighborhood Participation Plan" by City Planning.

What these changes mean is that going forward, virtually any public or private sector project that requires any action at all by the City Planning Commission must be brought to the nearby residents and neighborhood association first, before the City Planning process can begin.  This a truly groundbreaking step in terms of protecting New Orleans neighborhoods against unwanted development, and the biggest achievement to date in this project.

While this also has positive ramifications for businesses, it will not be until the full NOLA CPP is implemented that the full benefits to businesses will be realized.  Good developers are already meeting with residents and neighborhood associations, and the new mandate will give all sides a chance to get together, solve problems and find common ground.  This should expedite the rest of the city's decision-making processes, which go much faster when all parties are in agreement.  However, business owners remain vulnerable to individuals who may appear later in the process, identify themselves as stakeholders, and demand changes and/or delays in a project.  In New Orleans, sometimes these individuals are legitimate; many times they are not.  Currently, there is no method for authenticating these individuals.  The full NOLA CPP model does include a method for identifying, authenticating and including all stakeholders at the beginning stages of a project.  Thus, one major next step for the project is working with business interests 1) to inform them about the new mandate and facilitate effective communication with residents and neighborhoods and 2) to enlist them in supporting adoption of the full CPP model.

We will also collaborate with the Planning Commission staff, the Neighborhood Engagement Office and our partners at the Neighborhoods Partnership Network on other aspects of implementing the NPP.

Simultaneously, our work to map neighborhood boundaries in New Orleans continues.  We are nearing completion of our second (of 13) planning districts, are making good progress on another two, and are about to start up in three more.  We also continue to work with the Neighborhood Engagement Office to enroll residents in the New Orleans Recreation Division Commission's new Community Advisory Boards, which are the first formally established structures for resident input in the city's history.  And our Neighborhood Association Manual has now been downloaded over 160 times, been circulated in printed copies, and is being used by several resident groups to help start new neighborhood associations.

Finally, we are advancing work on our Latino Community of Interest pilot project with our partners Puentes New Orleans.  Following up on the well-received Latino community survey, which examined Latino residents' priority needs and issues as well as their barriers to civic engagement (the report is currently being translated into Spanish), we are preparing a new survey that will take a more detailed look at issues, concerns and needs among Latino residents regarding health care and education.  We will be working with many of the Latino leaders who assisted us with the first survey, and also with the City's Department of Health, in designing and conducting the survey.  It is also likely that Puentes and Committee for a Better New Orleans will present on the first survey at the annual conference of the National Council of La Raza, which will take place in New Orleans in July.

While it is tempting to take a few breaths and celebrate a little longer over the adoption of the NOLA CPP Early Notification System, the other projects are keeping us much too busy -- and the new momentum is much too strong -- for such a luxury.  Our Citizen Action Team and other key partners will be meeting soon to discuss a comprehensive strategy and specific next steps for moving ahead with adoption of the full NOLA CPP model.  We have a great opportunity to speed up the already-accelerating pace, and must take full advantage.  As always, we are extremely grateful to our many supporters, here in New Orleans and across the country and world.  You enable our work and inspire our dreams.

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Organization

Project Leader

Keith Twitchell

President
New Orleans, LA United States

Where is this project located?

Map of The New Orleans Citizen Participation Project