The bureaucracy of democracy
One Sacramento agency wants input from citizens, but will it make a difference?
Be heard: You’d better know your ABCs if you want to improve Sacramento’s low-income neighborhoods, because this alphabet soup gets real hot.
It brews up something like this: the Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency (SHRA) directs roughly $11 million a year in U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) funds to Sacramento neighborhoods in the form of Community Development Block Grants (CDBG), Home Investment Partnerships (HOME), Emergency Shelter Grants (ESG) and Housing Opportunities for Persons with Aids (HOPWA).
If you live in places like Oak Park, Del Paso Heights, Citrus Heights and Rio Linda, this soup translates to street lamps, sidewalk repairs, homeless shelters, park improvements and many more tangibles that affect everyday life.
Right now, SHRA wants to hear from you. This joint powers city/county agency is collecting public input for its “Five-Year Consolidation Plan,” a guide that will set priorities for how the millions in HUD funds will be used over the next five years. If you care about how this money is spent, now is the time to start talking.
Starting in May and ending this month, a series of nine neighborhood meetings were conducted by SHRA to get a sense of the public’s spending priorities. Yet judging from the number of people who attended recent Oak Park and Del Paso forums, communities aren’t taking the chance to speak up. The June 17 Oak Park meeting had fewer than 10 participants, and Del Paso fared no better. Although SHRA staff claims turnout rates have been mixed, they acknowledge the difficulty in getting people to attend these sorts of meetings.
“We put notices in the paper, went on the radio to announce them. … It’s not like you can drag people from their homes,” says SHRA’s Steve Young.
In addition to the community forums, SHRA has distributed surveys in numerous languages and is conducting focus groups. When the information-gathering process is over, a rough consolidated plan will be passed along to the SHRA Commission, a board of people appointed by the Sacramento City Council and Board of Supervisors.
By September, a copy of the five-year plan will be available to the public, and in October both the City Council and the Board of Supervisors will review the plan and set priorities, creating an action plan for the next year. This is the last chance for members of the public to share their thoughts.
The question is: Is it worth it to participate?
“I still believe,” says Bud Aungst, an Oak Park resident who attended the Oak Park meeting. But he adds that things always move too slowly. “The individual people from SHRA who work on the frontlines have been terrific. Those folks do the best they can, but it seems that when it reaches the higher-ups and the bureaucracy, things don’t happen.”
Del Paso resident Bill Maynard used to have a lot more influence than he does now. Maynard was one of a handful of residents serving on a Target Area Committee (TAC), citizens nominated by a city council to direct block grant funds for their neighborhoods.
“We used to get $500,000 to $700,000,” says Maynard. “SHRA was the parent company applying for grants, but our TAC was there to see how the money was spent. We worked with the city and made plans for development. It progressed in a logical fashion.”
But, says Maynard, each year the money dwindled until the group was decommissioned this past March. The East Del Paso TAC was the last such group for Sacramento.
“Before, we had some control,” says Maynard. “Now we have to get in line.”
The TACs were meant to be temporary, explains Christine Groth of SHRA. Areas were given these funds to do improvements and then move on. The TAC process was abandoned because it actually limited where the block grants would go by excluding neighborhoods, explained Donna Melendez, a senior planner for redevelopment in Del Paso. Now Maynard can attend community forums and give his input without his organizational clout—and hope that he is heard.
“Ultimately it comes down to the city councilperson,” he says. “We have to hope that they will take into account what we’ve said. I don’t think it’s a very fair process.”
At the recent Oak Park forum, hired consultants moderated the meeting where citizens were encouraged to share their thoughts and priorities. At the front of the room, a large poster listed the “Ground Rules” in Magic Marker: “No side discussions; be specific and use examples; find solutions, don’t place blame,” to name a few.
A low-energy meeting ensued where the small group of participants offered suggestions while moderators listed their comments on big pieces of paper taped to the wall. After this phase of the meeting, participants were given six colored dots to stick next to their top priorities listed on the posters. The moderators then counted up the dots and reviewed the group’s wish list in order. Better monitoring and policing of SHRA housing complexes, encouraging more home ownership and improving lighting were listed as the top three priorities.
Jeff Reynolds, a new Oak Park resident who attended the meeting, is curious about the end result of these meetings. “I thought it’s odd that so few people are attending and particularly interesting that there were zero people from the subsidized housing. The people most likely to be impacted by this process have no interest in the process. Ultimately, though, I thought the little we got to do there, tabulating our priorities—how that information gets used will be the real issue.”
Maynard isn’t even cautiously optimistic. “Those of us that attended the Del Paso meeting were not pleased,” he said. “We were made to jump through the same hoops as always: list your concerns, place your dots, let the councilperson make the decisions. I am tired of it.”
SHRA’s Groth and Young recognize Maynard’s view but assure the public that they are going “above and beyond” normal measures to involve the public in this.
“We recognize that this is the right thing to do,” says Young. “I don’t think that any of us feel that we know the needs of these neighborhoods better than the people who live there.”
In the meantime, Sacramento will wait and see. Will residents have their wishes met? The fate of SHRA’s good intentions may well be determined by the public’s willingness to follow this bureaucracy-laden, but critical, process.