A few days ago I was early to a meeting in City Council chambers and had time to look at the pictures hanging on the walls. In one hallway are pictures of all the City Councils for at least the pas 50 years. Considering that I was waiting for another meeting about Raleigh’s unrelenting growth, it struck me that City Council, despite Raleigh’s growth, hasn’t grown comparably. In 1947, there were seven members on the City Council, including the mayor. Today, there are eight.
Many of us live in parts of Raleigh that didn’t exist 20 or even 10 years ago. My home along the Falls of Neuse is an example. Today, with about 7,000 people, the area is the size of a small town. Yet, not a single person from the area sits on City Council.
Of course, we do have representation. Each person in Raleigh can vote for the mayor, their district councilor, and two at-large councilors. But voting for someone who lives 10 miles away isn’t the same as voting for someone with a vested interest in your particular neighborhood.
Representation is extremely important. Being involved with a grassroots effort over rezoning for a shopping center across the street from Falls Lake, people ask me frequently, “what can I do?” I invariably tell them to contact City Council. Nearly all look at me incredulously and ask again, “But what more can I do?”
The reality is that there is nothing more any of us can do. Whether we attend a public meeting, write a letter, call on the phone, send email, tweet, or stand on the corner with a sign, all we can do is tell City Council what we think. The eight who sit on Council are the ones with the power. No matter how much we agree or disagree, they are the ones that will decide. The frustration comes when people feel that they lack representation on Council – a very real frustration that people have expressed to me all too regularly.
This frustration runs deep within our culture. It is the core of our country’s independence which we will soon celebrate with flags, parades, and fireworks. Giving people more representation is something that Raleigh has addressed not with more seats on City Council, but by creating Citizen Advisory Councils (or CACs) for 19 different areas of the City – to give people more representation in the decisions that affect them most.
In important matters such as rezoning that do affect people most, citizens can attend their CAC meeting and do the one thing that we Americans cherish most – vote. Nearly 70 people turned out and voted 5 to 1 against rezoning for a seven-story tower on Hillsborough Street.
But last week we learned that City Council disagreed with that vote, and in turn voted 5 to 3 in favor of rezoning.
In North Raleigh, nearly 600 people attended their CAC meeting on June 5, and voted nearly 23 to 1 against rezoning of Dunn and Falls of Neuse Roads. Raleigh City Council has yet to act on that issue.
That meeting that I was waiting for in City Council Chambers? It was a gathering of all the chairpersons for Raleigh’s 19 CACs. Talk invariably turned to the seven-story Hillsborough tower, the overturned vote by citizens, as well as the record vote in North Raleigh. Tellingly, one chairperson not-so-jokingly described what was happening in the City as “an uprising.”
Fighting for representation as we celebrate the Fourth of July – it’s an American tradition.