Raleigh Report

Some say Raleigh proposal to increase community involvement would do the opposite

A Raleigh task force says the city government should replace Citizen Advisory Councils, which offer recommendations on proposed development.
A Raleigh task force says the city government should replace Citizen Advisory Councils, which offer recommendations on proposed development. tlong@newsobserver.com

Some people say they worry a proposal to improve citizen engagement in Raleigh would have the opposite effect, diluting the voices of residents concerned about development and other issues.

At 1 p.m. Tuesday, the Raleigh City Council is scheduled to hear a proposal to restructure the system of grassroots groups that it relies on for input on proposed developments and other projects, including road improvements.

Currently, Raleigh has 19 regionally specific Citizen Advisory Councils that are run by residents to review and vote on planning and development issues. Their meetings often allow residents to speak directly with developers, and the votes, which aren’t binding, are meant to give the city’s Planning Commission and City Council an idea how the community feels about planned projects.

But a proposal crafted by a city task force critiques the CAC system as inconsistent “in size, procedure, leadership and transparency.” A recent citizen survey revealed that most Raleigh residents have never been to a CAC meeting.

The group recommends scrapping the system and installing up to 12 Citizen Engagement Councils in which city staff would run community meetings on proposed developments.

Critics see a shift in influence away from residents and are also concerned that there wouldn’t be a community-wide vote on a project, a common CAC practice.

CAC leaders sent a letter to council members opposing those ideas. In a blog post, councilman David Cox said the proposal would set up city staff as “overseers” of residents and strip them of their voice.

“The new CECs will serve at the pleasure of Council – not citizens,” Cox said. “Importantly, the tradition of citizens voting on rezoning requests is glaringly absent from the recommendations.”

The proposal encourages residents or stakeholder groups – like neighborhood associations and churches – to hold their own votes apart from the community meeting.

“Rather than having one vote in isolation, which doesn’t always offer much context, then (city leaders) have a wealth of information,” said Damon Circosta, co-chairman of the task force.

“We heard from CACs that there’s going to be diminished citizen input. I disagree vehemently,” Circosta said.

Task force members – eight of whom were appointed by council members – supported the proposal by an 8-1 margin, he said. Carole Meyre, chairwoman of the Raleigh Citizens Advisory Council, was the lone dissenting vote.

Without a centralized vote, resident voices are diluted, councilman Russ Stephenson said.

“If you take away their opportunity to vote, you’re taking away a fundamental right in our country,” he said, adding that the city should hire experts to study the issue.

Mayor Nancy McFarlane said Monday that CAC advocates have nothing to worry about. She doesn’t plan to adopt the task force’s recommendations on Tuesday, and she wants to create a Community Engagement Board – a recommendation of the task force – to study its other recommendations.

Unlike the task force, the engagement board would be permanent.

“They did a really good job, but they were also on a really tight time schedule,” McFarlane said of the task force, which formed in December and expected to report back this spring.

“I think the misconception is that this task force is the end of it, and that we don’t want to hear from anyone else,” she continued. “That’s not true. We want to have people who will look at this all the time.”

Bob Geary, the Hillsborough CAC chairman, hopescity leaders are willing to consider a compromise. He’s suggesting an alternative structure that preserves CACs and their votes while also enabling city staff-run presentations on proposed developments.

“Have the planning staff run the community meeting, but do it at a CAC meeting scheduled by the CAC at a time that allows for a followup CAC meeting and vote,” Geary said. “Best of both worlds.”

Paul A. Specht: 919-829-4870, @AndySpecht