Monday, January 23, 2017 by Jack Craver

Arguments continue over neighborhood plan contact teams

What’s the difference between a neighborhood association and a neighborhood plan contact team?

According to the city of Austin, there’s a big difference. Neighborhood associations, which can be started by anyone, have no formal relationship with city government, whereas neighborhood plan contact teams are groups designated by the city to collaborate with city staff on crafting or amending a neighborhood plan.

In practice, says Pete Gilcrease, a former president of the Hyde Park Neighborhood Plan Contact Team, it’s a distinction without a difference.

“If you go to the Hyde Park Neighborhood Association meeting and the Hyde Park contact team meeting, they’ll be the exact same people,” said Gilcrease, one of the founders of Friends of Austin Neighborhoods, a coalition of new neighborhood groups that tout themselves as more “inclusive” than the established neighborhood associations affiliated with the Austin Neighborhoods Council. FAN and its member groups, such as Friends of Hyde Park, rely heavily on online voting, which they argue makes their organizations more accessible.

Both the Hyde Park Neighborhood Association and the Hyde Park contact team have such low participation that they do not represent the views of area residents, Gilcrease contends, pointing to a report published by the Office of the City Auditor in November that said contact teams are “inequitable, lack transparency, and may constitute a risk to fair housing choice.”

Contact teams should respond to the audit by getting rid of rules that make it hard for residents to participate, says Gilcrease. His contact team, for instance, allows only those who have attended one meeting in the past nine months to vote, and it does not allow online voting. As a result, he argues, contact teams are largely dominated by people who are least likely to have scheduling conflicts that prevent them from attending meetings.

Gilcrease, who was voted out as chair of the contact team one year into his two-year term, said he did not expect reform of contact teams without action from the city.

“They’re scared that if they let everybody participate, they’re going to lose their power,” he said.

Adrian Skinner, co-chair of the Hyde Park contact team, defended the team’s rules and suggested that Gilcrease’s criticism might be the result of hard feelings over his removal from office. Skinner noted that his board tried to push through new bylaws that would have loosened the voting requirements (granting eligibility to anybody who had attended a meeting in the last year), but the proposal failed to garner support from two-thirds of the team members and was thus defeated.

Skinner voiced skepticism about online voting and said the allegation that the group was inaccessible to residents was overblown.

“We all have time limitations,” he said, noting that he goes directly from work to the quarterly meetings that take place on Monday nights.

Other contact teams have even more restrictive memberships. The 14 voting members of the Central Austin Neighborhood Plan Area Committee, for instance, are selected by the seven neighborhood associations within the area, each of which names two members to the contact team. Even though the city prohibits contact teams from charging membership fees, CANPAC and several other contact teams draw their members exclusively from neighborhood associations that are not free to join, the audit noted.

Mary Ingle, who is a member of CANPAC and was until recently the president of ANC, said that contact teams should not be large and that it makes sense for them to be linked to established neighborhood groups, which often have collaborated with city staff in crafting the neighborhood plan that the contact team is charged with overseeing.

“The larger the group, the longer the meeting is,” she said.

The real problem, said Ingle, is that the city is relying too much on volunteer contact teams to do complicated planning work that should be largely conducted by professional staff. She said Austin has the “worst planning department in the United States.”

Although the audit recommended that the Planning and Zoning Department meet with contact teams to develop “strategies to increase representative public participation” as well as “clear definitions of contact team membership,” it did not suggest how the groups should determine who is eligible to vote or whether they should allow online voting.

“We and the code leave it up to contact teams to determine what forms of participation work for them,” said Margaret Valenti, who oversees contact teams for the Planning and Zoning Department.

Valenti did note that, due to rules put in place by the department early last year, contact team members who feel a team is out of compliance with city rules can file an online complaint that will prompt an investigation by the Planning and Zoning Department.

The dispute resolution rules have been in place nearly a year, but it was not until Jan. 1 that the city received any official complaints. Valenti declined to state the nature of the two complaints, saying only that both came from the same person.

Photo by Joe Mabel made available through a Creative Commons license.

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