Three years after abruptly dismantling citizen advisory councils (CACs), Raleigh’s leaders are once again giving them an opportunity to join the conversation around important issues, including the city’s extreme growth. 

A new community engagement plan—first presented to the city council during its retreat in late January—includes a recommendation to temporarily allow citizen advisory councils free use of five of the city’s 27 community centers, one in each district. 

After approval from the city council during a meeting last week, CACs are now allowed to use the city’s community centers until a more formal “Community Engagement Network” is established. The network is expected to include CACs and other community-based groups, all of which would have free access to city community centers and other resources.

The change doesn’t restore CACs to the status they once had, where they could make formal recommendations to the city council, but it does give them a place to meet, which could help revitalize the now-scattered network of neighborhood groups. In the three-year interim since CACs were disbanded, many of the smaller organizations have fallen apart. 

“We had 18 CACs prior to being dismantled and I think roughly half of that may take part,” council member Christina Jones wrote in an email to INDY Week. Jones is also chair of the overseeing Raleigh CAC. 

“I hope all CACs will take advantage of the free meeting space provided by the city as the first step towards this new program,” she wrote. “This is [their] opportunity to connect with other community groups and help grow engagement throughout the city. There are strong leaders both inside and outside of the CAC structure and when they combine forces, they will be unstoppable.”

During last week’s city council meeting, Jones expressed some concern over the number of CACs that are currently inactive. Raleigh’s community engagement manager, Tiesha Hinton, said the city plans to reach out to those inactive groups, starting with the previous chairs. The city also plans to support now-defunct CACs in becoming active again, if that’s their goal, Hinton said. 

The city’s immediate plan for engagement isn’t perfect—Jones noted that CACs don’t cover the entire city, so some areas may be left out. Other council members also expressed concern over giving community centers access to CACs while other groups are temporarily excluded (although there is an existing discount for nonprofits).

Ultimately, giving CACs free access to community centers (and the tables, chairs, internet access, and projectors that come with them) is just one step in a wider community engagement plan, said Hinton. The plan includes immediate actions as well as short- and long-term goals for community engagement. 

“It’s three years to the day since CACs changed,” said mayor pro tem Corey Branch during last week’s meeting. “At that time, I voted not to get rid of CACs or move them, because we didn’t have a plan. It’s taken us too long. This is a step in that direction.”

What’s happening with community engagement now? 

During last week’s city council meeting, the council also unanimously approved a measure to hold town hall meetings four times a year rather than only twice a year. City staff also plan to kick off an “engagement campaign” that increases offline communication between the city and Raleigh residents, Hinton said. 

“That’s touching libraries, that’s touching the Department of Social Services, and just really enhancing the way we engage off of the internet,” she said. 

City council members have talked in the past about improving offline communication, including posting paper announcements on doors that notify people of major projects. For example, during the Dix Edge Area Study, one way the city conducted outreach was by going door to door. 

The city has also started improving its website with online pages about opportunities for residents to give their two cents to city staff, both in person and online. 

Another item on the agenda is public comment. For the last couple of years, public comment has been one of the few ways for people to speak directly to city council members. After returning to in-person meetings, the city council added an option to leave comments via voicemail, although many continue to criticize the three-minute time limit for all public comments. 

Now, the city council is considering holding additional meetings reserved only for public comment, a measure that could bring some relief from hours-long evening meetings, where comments can take more than an hour. The city is also looking at adding a time minimum and more widely spreading information about how and when people can comment. 

Last Tuesday, Hinton also gave a presentation on the city’s various boards and commissions (another way the city engages people), particularly how people can view and participate in them. 

Hinton explained that of the city’s 21 boards and commissions, 11 meet in person only, with no option for online viewing or attendance. That includes, ironically, the Community Engagement Board, as well as the Police Advisory Board, Environmental Advisory Board, and several boards dealing with the arts and other issues.

The remaining 10 boards and commissions (including the Planning Commission, Raleigh Transit Authority, Raleigh Historic Development Commission, and others) all have meetings that can be viewed online, although access varies. 

Photo by Pexels and Unsplash.

Short-term goals

The city council is prioritizing the development of the Community Engagement Network, mentioned above, which is expected to take 6 to 12 months. The network will likely include small nonprofits, student groups, churches, civic organizations, social groups, and “topic-focused” groups that want to participate in government decision-making. 

These community groups wouldn’t have free access just to meeting spaces but also to other resources, Hinton said. That could include a community relations analyst assigned to each group, access to city equipment, and the ability to send out mailings twice a year. The city also plans to give these groups access to strategic planning tools and help them set goals that are “SMART” (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound).

Unfortunately, not every nonprofit will have access to all of these resources, since there are hundreds across the city, noted city manager Marchell Adams-David. Providing access to CACs is a first step toward restoring the privileges they once had, but going forward, the city will have to have intentional conversations about how to “spread the love,” she said. 

“Not every nonprofit, even if they have the appropriate credentials, is gonna be able to use the space, because we have so many programs that make [the Parks, Recreation, and Cultural Resources Department] what it is,” Adams-David said. “We’re gonna have to figure out the parameters of when, how often, and which groups are gonna be afforded the opportunity to use the space, because those rental revenues help offset the expenses of the department.”

Within the next year, the city also hopes to start hosting regular meet and greets between residents and city departments that offer services, including Raleigh Water, Solid Waste, and Transportation. During those events, staff would be able to educate residents on city services. 

Long-term goals

During the city council retreat, Hinton outlined two long-term goals: first, establish an “external community engagement service unit,” in which residents would work with city staff to address the needs of the community. For example, the unit could help add sidewalks and bus stops to areas that need them, bolster sustainability and stormwater management efforts, or help add public art and historic markers. 

Second, Hinton talked about the creation of a City of Raleigh Expo, a biannual event in which city staff would answer questions, share engagement opportunities, and pass out educational materials at various booths, organized by department. Both goals are expected to take one to three years to fully implement. 

These short- and long-term goals can only be accomplished with additional funding from the city, which council members are considering as they discuss the budget for fiscal year 2023–24. The community engagement department is asking for enough funding to hire several more full-time employees, as well as fund these long-term projects. 

Budget discussions will last several months before a final budget is approved sometime in June. This year, budget work sessions are set for February 20, March 13, and April 10. An online survey on budget priorities is open to the community through February 28. A public hearing on the proposed budget is set for June 6.

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