Next step for neighborhoods

As we reported in our Oct. 5 issue (“Shake-up at City Hall,” Newslines), Chico City Manager Greg Jones is making some big changes in city government, breaking the “super-department” known as Community Services into four distinct groups. One of his goals, he says, is to make city government more responsive to neighborhoods.

In fact, one of the four new departments will be called Housing and Neighborhood Services, and one of its goals, Jones has said, will be to engage with neighborhoods in planning for the future.

As a corollary goal, he told the City Council recently, he wants the city to work with neighborhoods to create viable and representative neighborhood associations. Some neighborhoods are far along in that process—the Chico Avenues Neighborhood Association, for example—while others haven’t even begun to organize.

The members of CANA are well aware of the benefits a strong neighborhood association derives when lobbying City Hall and the council, and to Jones’ credit he knows that City Hall, in turn, can do a better job when it works closely with neighborhoods.

For one thing, the development-approval process would improve. In the void created by the lack of neighborhood associations, opposition to particular development proposals usually comes from ad-hoc groups of immediate neighbors. When those projects finally reach the City Council, after months or even years in the process and approval by the Planning Commission, the neighbors put the heat on the elected officials, and the developers often are told to start over.

If developers were able to work with existing, representative neighborhood associations from the beginning, they would have the opportunity to adjust their proposals to meet neighborhood concerns early in the process and possibly avoid such expensive delays.

There’s another change that could enhance neighborhoods’ participation in governance. That would be to change the structure of the council from at-large to district representation.

Under the current structure, councilmembers all represent the same people—everybody in the city. If the city were divided into districts, however, that would continue, but they also would particularly represent their districts’ residents and neighborhoods. Residents of the districts would know which councilmembers to turn to when they wanted to make their concerns known on the political level, and councilmembers would enjoy better communication with smaller groups of voters.

The change would require a charter amendment. But if the city’s goal is to involve neighborhoods in civic governance, it’s well worth exploring. Many other cities have district elections; their experiences could help us learn whether the change would work for Chico.