The Case for Empowered Citizen Involvement

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Our local democratic institutions were designed like a four cylinder engine. Unfortunately, our local engine of government putters on two cylinders. One cylinder is missing, another isn’t firing as intended. One result: Sub-optimal performance and insufficient tax base for public services. Fortunately, there is an easy fix. That fix is described in the original design.

The original design of local government features 4 distinct on-ramps for change, the four-legged policy stool. According to this design, change can originate from one of four sources, ultimately to be voted upon by elected officials.

An excellent graphic of the four on-ramps to change is found on Pg. 2 of the City of Redding Policy Overview & Flow Chart (below). Policy proposals come to elected officials from four distinct groups, half are comprised of citizens, the other half being staff.

The first on-ramp for change is a “Standing Committee”. Standing committees inform, report, and sometime recommend. Rules for Standing Committees are well described in any Parliamentary Procedure manual.

Interestingly, a form of Standing Committee is proposed by proponents of Shasta County’s public safety tax increase, in the form of a 9 member oversight committee and advisory body. While this is an excellent example of use of a standing committee, it’s not exactly how the system was designed to operate. Ideally, a standing committee would be empowered BEFORE big moves were made. Citizen input should be represented during deliberation and investigation of policy options.

Two examples clarify the distinction. The first is public safety, the second is housing policy.

Empowering a standing committee before a tax measure is placed on the ballot would allow Redding the opportunity to evaluate options and weigh alternatives. Perhaps Redding is receiving more than its share of released felons? One option would be to make sure that doesn’t happen. It may be that promised savings from early release were to be deposited into a Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Fund, and that Redding isn’t getting its fair share of that money? An empowered standing committee on public safety may have discovered, prior to an election, that changing the timing of the feeding of prisoners could yield 60 more beds for Shasta County Jail. Jailing 60 of Redding’s worst offenders certainly must take a bite out of crime.

Consider affordable housing policy. Recently, California passed a new fee for affordable housing. The term “fee” is California speak for tax, just as ‘affordable housing’ infers highly subsidized housing. First year local affordable housing fee revenue is estimated at $2.7 million. This money was promised to be repatriated locally. A standing committee on housing could suggest alternatives to who gets that money or how is it spent. Absent a standing committee on housing, and you get the modern equivalent of taxation without representation.

Standing committees were designed into our system of government. The term ‘standing committee’ infers empowerment: full access, transparent government, civic involvement. Why not? Administrative simplicity?

Jeff Morrow is the operating partner of Affordable Housing Associates, and a proponent of entrepreneurial communities. Affordable Housing Associates produces accessory dwelling unit home kits, which in January will be required to be ZNE, even if located in the shade.
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8 Responses

  1. Avatar Russell Hunt says:

    Sounds like the Union of Soviet Socialist Republic’s Constitution. Remember when Bob Christofferson claimed that rehabbing the old Dicker’s building, now K-2, would be less expensive then a new City Hall ? That $11 million dollar project, cost $31 million. Of course, a committee for comparison hand selected by Bob, decided Dicker’s was more expensive. Now image a new City Hall downtown. That would of made a huge difference to that part of town. So unaccountable committees controlled by the city staff are bad, bad idea.

  2. Joanne Snyder Joanne Snyder says:

    Would members of this oversite committee and advisory body be paid, or are they volunteers? If these are paid positions, how would the job be advertised in the community.
    In the past Redding has paid enormous fees to “experts from afar” who basically get paid to talk, but not actually help solve any of the problems that lower the quality of life in this town. Thank you for your article.

  3. Avatar Bruce Vojtecky says:

    Once again the salaries of every state governor was listed on MSN. Once again I wonder how Redding can justify paying their city manager more than the governors of every state.

  4. Oh, Jeff. How I dream that our city could be as citizen friendly as other places where accessory dwelling units were encouraged by the city, where in-law units were welcomed and the path was cleared free of onerous permits and regulations and fines. Sigh. Thanks for sharing. Come back any time, and please keep up the good fight. It’s worth it!

  5. Avatar Beverly Stafford says:

    I still wonder at the reasoning of having low-income housing in the middle of the city, a city trying desperately to revive its downtown. If I were doing the planning, I’d have units that cater to median home buyers, even some upscale apartments. Low-income housing would be elsewhere. No, I’m not trying to shun low-income people; I’m just being realistic about the revival efforts of downtown.

    • Avatar Bruce Vojtecky says:

      Beverly, you are not shunning low income people. Everywhere even in cities that have put aside low income funding the biggest challenge is NIMBYs.

  6. Avatar Jeff Morrow says:

    I’ve spent the past week in Overland Park, Kansas, where citizen involvement is a cornerstone of community planning and development ( No doubt, this is one reason Overland Park has been voted the #1 place to raise a family.

    Russell’s comment reminds me of the saying: “There’s a reason there are no statues to committees.” But collaboration is how things get done in our complex society. Take a look at the Forward Overland Park website, and you’ll see anything BUT a rubber stamp. It’s just people who care and freely share their time and talents.

    Does Redding need consultants to kick-start collaboration toward a better future in Redding? No, just leadership that opens doors and windows.

    As for downtown Redding, I agree with Beverly, a vibrant downtown needs consumers capable of supporting expensive new improvements. Redding has the Lorenz Hotel and several other subsidized housing complexes downtown. And next, 45 more ‘affordable’ housing units in Redding’s new downtown high rise. Redding needs density in downtown’s surrounding neighborhoods, people walking and biking, and spending! Second units in downtown’s surrounding neighborhoods would help. Too bad residential lots are too narrow (60′ minimum, most are 50′ wide) thus 2nd units aren’t allowed in the neighborhoods surrounding downtown. Scratch that source of affordable housing, or for downtown oriented consumers who have disposable income because their housing is close, but not expensive.

    Speaking of the 45 new ‘affordable’ units downtown, I wonder how those prize spots are awarded? Who gets the golden ticket to a new subsidized downtown apartment?

    Meanwhile, I’ve learned there will be a presentation by staff to City Council on how to expend the new affordable housing fee revenue. Staff’s report will be made available the Friday before the Tuesday meeting, around October 1st. So much for public input on the housing issue, or use of new tax revenues.

    I’m feeling the sting of disenfranchisement. Disenfranchisement leads to disillusionment with the process and disappointment with the outcomes. I used to say I was hopeful, but not optimistic. I’ll be changing that line.

    The analogy of government being the elephant in the garden holds true. If the elephant in the garden moves, the garden suffers greatly and in unexpected ways. The same is true of government. Citizen involvement in decision making would be an elephant in government’s garden.

    Thanks for the great comments, I appreciate them all.

    • Avatar Anonymous Heckler says:

      The funny thing about that zoning is the neighborhoods near downtown are in fact thick with accessory units. I used to live in a lovely house that had a couple of small places facing the alley behind our backyard just a short walk from the county building and courthouse. But they city renders it illegal to build any new ones. And then wonders why there’s a shortage of affordable housing.