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City ‘guidelines’ set off alarm 

click to enlarge Neighborhood leader Jonathan Hardin: Some of the city's guidelines seem excessive. - FILE PHOTO
  • Neighborhood leader Jonathan Hardin: Some of the city's guidelines seem excessive.
Neighborhood groups and government officials are often at odds, especially when it comes to development proposals. And to complicate matters, it’s not always clear who speaks for residents of a neighborhood in dealings with the city. At City Council or Zoning Board meetings, residents may say they’re speaking on behalf of a neighborhood they don’t live in, or they may have a viewpoint that doesn’t reflect that of most other residents.

But when the city tried to come up with a way to deal with the problem, things got tense.

A city document titled “Neighborhood Associations Guidelines,” which was discussed at a board meeting of the coalition Many Neighbors Building Neighborhoods about two weeks ago, resulted in anger among some neighborhood association leaders and residents. The guidelines define what the city will recognize as a neighborhood association, what the leadership of an "official" association should consist of, and how the group should operate.

Instead of bringing clarity to how the city will work with neighborhood groups, the guidelines seemed to raise questions and even a bit of suspicion about the city’s motives.

“We don’t know exactly what they want the guidelines for,” MNBN chair Jonathan Hardin said last week. The organization has about 30 neighborhood associations and block clubs from all over the city under its umbrella. A big concern, Hardin said, is that the guidelines may serve to suppress citizen engagement instead of encouraging more of it.

For instance, only the presidents of officially designated associations, or their designee, will be invited to the city’s monthly Neighborhood Association President’s meeting, according to the guidelines. That could make it more difficult for smaller neighborhood groups to meet directly with officials from the city’s Department of Neighborhood and Business Development, Hardin said.

Of the seven neighborhood associations in the northwest section of the city where Hardin lives, only four would meet the criteria for official designation, he said.

City officials insist that the set of guidelines MNBN received at its February meeting was only a draft, intended to begin a conversation. It’s not a resolution headed to City Council for a vote, Deputy Mayor James Smith said. And the city is not trying to inhibit people from being engaged in their neighborhoods, he said.

However, Smith said, some formal guidelines are needed. “We’ve had situations with competing individuals claiming they represent the same neighborhood,” he said. “This puts us in a terrible spot.”

Guidelines are especially important when the city is providing grants for neighborhood improvement. Neighborhood associations that are 501(c) (3) charitable organizations are the only ones eligible for city financial support under IRS regulations.

Hardin said he understands that there are restrictions related to the city’s financial support for neighborhood groups. But he said the guidelines weren’t presented as though they were intended for further discussion.

And some of the guidelines seemed excessive, he said. Many of the neighborhood groups are small and have only a few members. They don’t have the money or resources to meet all the requirements of a neighborhood association, but they may represent some city neighborhoods struggling to address serious issues, he says.

And neighborhood associations are often sustained by people who have enough flexibility in their schedule to attend meetings with city officials. Residents and business owners frequently rely on those people to pass along information that’s relevant to their community, Hardin said.

Some MNBN leaders saw the guidelines as an attempt by the city to reign in the organization and potentially weaken its influence, Hardin said.

“There has been some mistrust between the city administration and MNBN,” Hardin said, and MNBN wasn’t involved in developing the guidelines. “We need to be a part of this conversation,” he said.

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