It’s been a little over a year since Raleigh’s city council abolished its support for citizen advisory councils (CACs) in an unannounced vote. 

Now, the city is getting a framework in place to engage Raleigh residents in new ways it hopes will be more far-reaching, inclusionary, and effective. But, even with a year-long community engagement study that cost upwards of $70,000, the specter of the CACs, which still operate without city support, continues to loom large.

In his 18-page report to the city council last week, Mickey Fearn—the consultant the city hired to study and make recommendations on how the city can best engage its residents with government processes and initiatives—all but suggests resurrecting CACs, or “community and neighborhood organizations,” alongside several other actionable initiatives.

“Whatever is going to replace the CACs, whatever it’s going to look like or do what they did, then the city needs to provide support for those organizations,” Fearn told the council during his final presentation at its meeting on March 16.

Throughout the study process, Fearn noted a lack of trust between citizens and the city council, as well as frustration and resentment, tied to the council’s decision to withdraw its support of the nearly 50-year-old citizen groups without public input. 

He also noted the problems that existed with the 18 CACs, including the way they unevenly engaged citizens. Some were too large, comprising tens of thousands of households across massive geographical areas, while some were small, comprising just a few thousand households in a handful of neighborhoods. People who attended different CACs had different concerns, such as planning and zoning in wealthier CACs versus concerns about basic human services, like food deserts, education, and crime, in poorer areas. There were also logistical problems: meetings often occurred on weekday evenings, and it could be difficult for CACs to find volunteers to lead them. 

 “The challenge with the historical CAC structure is that it was not necessarily inclusionary in that it was not the entire umbrella for all the things that needed to go on in community engagement in the city,” Fearn said at the meeting. “But the function that it served was absolutely critical … That structure is fine as long as it doesn’t pretend to be the total of community engagement in the city … because there are so many activities and things that need to be done other than what the CACs did.”

In his report, Fearn also recommends assembling two committees, one internal and one external, for community engagement. The committees will start out small, Fearn says, and grow to add more members as needed. 

“Initially, the [external] task force will be comprised of individuals who have shown significant interest in the future of community engagement in Raleigh,” Fearn told the INDY in an email. “They are constituents with whom I have been engaged over the last year. Some of them were allies, some adversaries, a few have been both. We are also engaging ethnic and cultural community organizations, N.C. State, the Raleigh Chamber, and a few other community organizations.”

Christina Jones, head of the Raleigh CAC grassroots organization as it exists today, told the INDY that she was invited to serve on the external community engagement task force, along with seven other CAC leaders. She sees Fearn’s report as seeming to propose reestablishing CACs in that it suggests creating community organizations to work with various city departments, such as Housing and Neighborhoods, Planning, and Parks, Recreation, and Cultural Resources, with city funding.

“It recommends exactly what CACs were, so I am confused,” Jones says. “I’m not against creating something new, not at all. But I’m confused as to why CACs had to be disbanded for an entire year before we came up with that.” 

Still, Jones says, she has been thinking about ways to make these new community organizations better, including potentially aligning them with the city’s 28 community centers, therefore serving 10 more locations across the city than the 18 CACs reached. 

Jones also supports another major recommendation in Fearn’s report: the creation of a city office or department dedicated to community engagement that answers directly to the city manager. A member of the city’s parks advisory board, Jones says a department dedicated to engaging citizens would be helpful to city staffers who are tasked, simultaneously, with having to create major plans for city projects and having to engage citizens with those plans. 

“Staff are trying to do so much to develop an entire plan, and to ask them to do community engagement, too, is unfair,” Jones says. “A department dedicated to that would help so many within city departments, as well as residents of the city.”

The mayor and several council members told the INDY last week that creating a community engagement office is a top priority for the council and will be funded in this year’s city budget. 

“We feel that elevating [a community engagement] office under the city manager’s office sends a message of value,” says Mayor Mary-Ann Baldwin. 

There was no cost estimate for the proposal in Fearn’s report, but Baldwin says the community engagement initiatives will likely occur gradually. 

“We don’t know what the numbers look like yet, but we’ve talked about a potentially phased approach in two budget years,” she says. 

Council member Jonathan Melton says he sees the proposal for renewed city support for community organizations in Fearn’s report as a move toward a more decentralized way of communicating with citizens.

“There are multiple ways to get information to folks,” Melton says. “Folks will look towards their community organizations for information, and the city is working to do a better job of being more accessible. We’ve talked a lot about trying to find people where they are. How do we find that person that works the third shift and can’t go to a neighborhood meeting? How do we reach the person who has two jobs, or is a single parent? Or the person who has been disengaged? I think Mickey’s report speaks more to that work.”

Council member David Cox, whose vote was one of two against abolishing city support for CACs last February, is not enthused about the prospect of creating a new city department to facilitate community engagement.

“The formation of a community engagement department will simply continue to obfuscate and shove serious community engagement out of sight and out of mind,” Cox wrote in an email to the INDY. He said the city is worse off for community engagement than it was a year ago and that he’s disappointed in the community engagement report, which he found “lacking in specifics.”

Cox was a major proponent of the CACs and advocated for reforming them. 

At a work session in October, when Fearn presented an update on his community engagement study, Mayor Baldwin said that, over the last decade, the council tried several times to reform CACs, with no success. 

“Attempts were made to unify, regulate, and make [CACs] more friendly toward members of the community who did not participate,” Baldwin said at the time. “There was resistance to change. If we could change CACs, we would have.”

With Fearn’s final report in the hands of city staff, and recommendations to the internal and external committees to be completed this week, recommendations for specific actions, such as how to create and pay for a community engagement office, will go back before the council in May. 

“I want to stress that anyone who wants to engage can,” Fearn wrote in his email to the INDY. “As our work plan becomes more defined, we will be establishing groups to lead various aspects of the work plan. In addition, anyone is invited, and encouraged, to contact [city staff] and [me] any time they have a contribution to make.”

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