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Motions Not Made: Sneaking Words into City Code

by Lisa Wilbourne

In February, four residents told city council they are disenfranchised because, not owning their properties, they cannot vote in their neighborhood associations. They argue a significant portion of the city’s population is cut off — not only from inclusion in their own neighborhoods, but from the city’s Neighborhood Advisory Board (NAB), a panel of citizens representing each of Greenville’s neighborhood associations. The NAB provides advice and formal recommendations to city council on issues important to neighborhoods.

analysis

In response to these citizen concerns, district 1 representative Kandie Smith requested what she called a “Neighborhood Advisory Board Ordinance Revision” be placed on the April 8 agenda for discussion.

Placed it was. And discuss they did.

The meeting’s agenda introduced the discussion as follows:

“Council Member Kandie Smith has expressed interest in an ordinance to assure equal rights and equal voting privileges to all property owners and renters immediately upon establishing residency and/or ownership in a designated association area. Council Member Smith would like to eliminate any barriers, economic or otherwise, that prevent equal rights, and to make the same requirement for a neighborhood association to be recognized by the City of Greenville for inclusion in the Neighborhood Advisory Board.”

Equal rights, equal voting privileges: No councilor has denied these are worthy goals for our city.

It’s the part about the city “recognizing” neighborhood associations, based on a city-devised and regulated set of rules, where the problem lies.

A “neighborhood association,” is currently defined in the City Code (Section 2-3-81) as,

“An organized group of residents within a specific neighborhood within the corporate limits of the city and that operates under a formal association [sic] bylaws, holds at least two board or membership meetings a year, has elected officers, maintains records of meetings, maintains an association membership roster, and has placed on file with the Neighborhood Liaison/Ombudsman a current set of bylaws and amendments and a list of current officers. There shall be only one neighborhood association for each neighborhood.”

Though this in itself sounds like the city regulating how a neighborhood association is constituted, neighborhood associations are in fact independent. They are neither government-run nor government-sponsored.

But the city, believing neighborhood associations enhance the city by encouraging a sense of community, established the citizen-led Neighborhood Advisory Board “to preserve and strengthen neighborhoods.” The NAB further defined its charge to building “cooperative relationships between neighbors,… and strong connections among neighborhoods.”

The NAB, in essence, is an interest group. Its interest: Maintaining stable neighborhoods throughout the city. (Read more here.)

Unlike other panels whose members are okay’ed by city council, NAB board members are appointed by their neighborhood associations — which is much closer to direct democracy than councilors okaying appointments. (Read more about the NABs unique, independent status among city boards and commissions here.)

So with that background in place…

Back to the April 8 meeting

During the course of the hour-long discussion, Smith made this motion: “to have staff look at [neighborhood associations] and bring back something that clearly displays inclusion.” Her motion passed in a split vote: Smith, Max Joyner, Rose Glover and Dennis Mitchell in favor; Marion Blackburn and Calvin Mercer opposed. Mitchell added to the motion that the NAB should weigh in on this issue. Glover added that each neighborhood can have more than one neighborhood association — which, like most of her contributions to city council debate, makes absolutely zero sense.

During the discussion, half the council (Blackburn, Mitchell, Mercer) agreed that each neighborhood had its own challenges and that a one-size-fits-all ordinance would not be appropriate.

Let’s compare the explanation of the item as it was given in the agenda with the motion council passed.

Agenda: “To assure equal rights and equal voting privileges to all property owners and renters immediately upon establishing residency and/or ownership in a designated association area.”

Passed: “To have staff look at [neighborhood associations] and bring back something that clearly displays inclusion.”

Unlike the description in the agenda, the motion that passed says nothing about HOW city staff should bring broader representation to the Neighborhood Advisory Board.

At no point in the nearly 60-minute debate did Smith, Blackburn, Joyner, Glover, Mitchell or Mercer say a word about how staff should implement their charge to make the NAB more inclusive. Rather, Smith was explicit: “I’m not telling staff what words to use, that’s up to them as professionals. I hope they’ll do some research to see what other peer cities are doing.”

The only mention of all people being able to vote in their neighborhoods as soon as they establish residency came from Mayor Allen Thomas. “We don’t want exclusionary tactics anywhere in this city for any reason,” said Thomas, “whether they’ve lived there for one day, one month, six months, ten years, renter or homeowner.”

Revisions to “Neighborhood Association” handed to NAB

Carrying out council’s wishes, on April 17, city attorney Dave Holec sent two options for revising the city code’s definition of “Neighborhood Association” to Neighborhood Advisory Board members for their input.

Holec’s options for revision show clear deference to the particular method of implementation found in the agenda and referred to by the mayor, though it was never brought up during the discussion or included in the motion that passed.

Special NAB meeting to discuss ordinance revisions

On April 30, the NAB met in a special session to discuss Holec’s options and put forward a formal recommendation for city council to consider in May when they return to this issue.

Mitchell, present at the meeting, said if the NAB didn’t deliver something to council, one of Holec’s revisions would likely pass.

The board, wanting more time to sort out the complicated issue, will request three months to create a plan and timeline for increasing all residents’ engagement — something they feel they have been working steadily toward for a long time now. Smith, also in attendance, nodded in agreement that she found the three months acceptable.

Putting it together

So, where did the instructions about how to implement the issue of equal representation on the Neighborhood Advisory Board come from?

The instructions were in the agenda item explanation, presumably composed by Smith, who in council discussion said she didn’t want to tell staff how to do it.

The motion council passed said nothing about how to implement the policy.

The language about implementation — mentioned in the agenda description but absent in council deliberations — mysteriously popped up again in Holec’s draft options.

We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: Council’s job is to set policy not implement it. That’s the job of the professional staff.

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