Communication Breakdown

Critics argue consolidation breeds lack of response

By Kate A. Hallock
Resident Community News

Members of the Task Force on Consolidated Government’s Neighborhoods and Planning Subcommittee are grappling with an issue today that seems to have realized some of the worst fears about consolidated government when it was first explored nearly 50 years ago: loss.

Loss of identity. Loss of voice. Loss of engagement. Loss of quality of life.

At a Jan. 9 subcommittee meeting at City Hall, Trey Csar and members of the JAX2025 Subcommittee on Distinctive Neighborhoods and Civic Engagement were invited to share that committee’s findings with Rena Coughlin, Neighborhoods and Planning Subcommittee Chair, and members Shannon Blankenship, Betty Burney, Giselle Carson, Ben Davis, Kay Ehas, and Paul Tutwiler, as well as District 5 Councilwoman and Task Force Chair Lori Boyer.

Csar, who is also president of Jacksonville Public Education Fund, explained that the Distinctive Neighborhoods subcommittee focused on government responsiveness in general and the 1995 Neighborhood Bill of Rights in particular.

“There is a belief that when it comes to the City and its agencies, pro-active communication is vital. The subcommittee felt that the Neighborhood Bill of Rights was not universally executed by elected officials, constitutional officers and different City department heads and City employees,” Csar stated. “The subcommittee has asked that stronger attention be paid to the document and its provisions, but that attention should not be necessary. The key question we struggle with is how does that become a core part of the fabric and the culture of the City and how does it be continuously renewed as transitions happen?”

He went on to share the subcommittee’s concerns about lack of response by City officials. “How do we as a City government start to hold City employees and others accountable for executing on those beliefs and wishes? How do we measure effectively all of our agencies in their response to neighborhood concerns and how do we make sure they are pro-active in their communication?”

Coughlin noted in response, “We’ve done hearings out in the community and there’s seems to be the most feeling that government has somehow let down core City neighborhoods.”
“Our feeling was that government was not living up to our full expectations regardless of geography,” said Csar.

• Losing neighborhoods •

That statement was reiterated by former Councilwoman Glorious Johnson, who addressed the issue of loss of identity and voice, and eventually quality of life. “Back when consolidation was being discussed, it was felt that some neighborhoods would eventually be ignored. Sallye Mathis, then City Councilwoman, was a proponent of Consolidation from its inception. But, at first, Mary Singleton, City Councilwoman, opposed Consolidation because she believed that it was ‘a plan to minimize our (Negro) strength in government,’” said Johnson.
“Many in the neighborhood felt we would eventually be ignored. We feel that our neighborhood has been destroyed, by design, for whatever reason,” she continued. “It takes
forever to get responses from the City. We are accused of not caring for our neighborhood. We want to be included at the table when there is discussion about the destiny of a neighborhood.”

The JAX2025 subcommittee findings echoed what the Task Force subcommittee discovered through a series of poorly attended community meetings and a paucity of responses to an online survey.

Ironically, those five hearings were not well attended, with less than 40 people total listed on the attendance sheets, and there were fewer than 90 responses to the online survey. Ironic because communication and response are two of the hot buttons that both subcommittees.

Csar noted, “One of the divides is that neighborhoods that are fortunate to have strong organizations with staff or citizens know how the game is played and how things work, so a lot more gets done and there’s a lot more interaction with local elected officials. For those that don’t have that long history of expertise there’s less, and that’s one of the dividers in our community.”

As Coughlin’s committee discovered, there’s an administrative tension between how a city proactively connects with an organization that may be ad hoc or not defined according to a statute, ordinance or zoning code. “It seems almost unfair to say ‘You [the City] have to reach out to us [the neighborhood organization], but we have the right to define ourselves so you have to figure out how to find us and talk to us,’” she said.

Understanding what defines a neighborhood is a puzzle and does make timely communication a problem. The City’s Subdivision Code has a list of official neighborhood associations where 75% or more have covenants and restrictions, and may be managed by a management company or by its residents. However, a second list of neighborhoods, found on the GIS mapping site, does not correspond to a third list that the Planning Department has for work notices nor to the fourth list maintained by the Neighborhoods Department for CPAC purposes.

• Getting the word out •

The abundance of lists and their respective maintenance results in confusion, ineffectiveness and untimeliness, not to mention the absence of public notice altogether.When Coughlin asked if Csar’s group had looked at technology solutions for communications, he said that neighborhood association volunteers are not always available or totally reliable when it comes to consistently disseminating information. “Start with the lowest technology devices, such as cellphones, text messaging,” he suggested.

But Task Force subcommittee member Giselle Carson said “The trend in technology is to pull information, rather than push it [out]. It would be impossible for the City to push information out and get it to everybody.”

The current process for communicating public hearings is woefully inadequate. Case in point: the five community meetings mentioned above were emailed from the Legislative Services Division to each member of the Task Force and placed on the City of Jacksonville website. Short of daily visiting the site’s Council Public Notices page or calling his or her City Council representative, knowing which issues and when they would be discussed publically is nearly impossible.

One suggestion was to provide an email address or phone number to the City for notifications, but Boyer commented, “I see a huge challenge with privacy issues regarding email addresses and cell phone numbers given to the City and then kept up to date. Not everyone wants to get noticed.”

One step is determining how to solicit citizen input but still keep citywide priorities. As Blankenship stated, “JAX2025 did an amazing job of what we’re talking about, trying to find ways to gauge people’s interest about a host of different topics and ensure that no one person had a much more active voice than others and also continue to engage people in the ongoing process of that planning.”

No matter what a resident’s or neighborhood’s underlying interests are, how to put their voice in, not at the end of the line, but engage with the City throughout the project is, indeed, a challenge to overcome.

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