Doing the Community's Will

When city resources are tight, Frank Fairbanks writes, sometimes all you need is community participation to make progress.
June 13, 2007 AT 3:00 AM
Frank Fairbanks
By Frank Fairbanks  |  Contributor
Frank Fairbanks was a GOVERNING contributor. He has served as city manager of Phoenix since 1990 and was named one of GOVERNING's Public Officials of the Year in 1994.

Last week, the mayor, city council, and staff held our weekly council meeting in a lower-income area of Phoenix. Once a month, we take a meeting out on the road to focus on key programs and community issues in particular areas. We met at a community center and adjacent branch library that opened a year ago, and saw that both spaces were alive with activity. Groups of teens shot hoops in a glass-walled gym, while across the courtyard, every seat at the library's large bank of public-access computers was filled. The community center and library were packed, and attendance at the council meeting exceeded everyone's expectations.

Meetings in these neighborhoods can be tough. There are many more problems than available funding or solutions. Some residents are upset and cynical. But at this meeting, we heard from the community and staff about progress that's being made to improve their neighborhood. Although many problems remain, the community told us the glass is at least half full. One reason for their optimism is a recent community-based initiative supported heavily by the city. The project combines community participation and city resources to strengthen these neighborhoods. There are already signs of real, permanent improvement.

One community priority that shows progress is the ongoing war against graffiti. There are many needs in these neighborhoods, and it may be a little surprising that the community makes graffiti a high priority. But to people living in these neighborhoods and working to improve their lives, graffiti means crime, decay, the breakdown of order and the loss of hope. They see graffiti as a barrier to becoming the neighborhood they want to be.

The city's response is Graffiti Busters. This program has been developed and strengthened over a decade. It involves many different government agencies and the public in implementing multiple program elements. One-shot silver bullets are hard to find. What works are determined, comprehensive efforts.

Graffiti Busters includes:

  • A strong city service delivery team to quickly paint over graffiti
  • Effective program measurements and accountability to a 48-hour removal goal
  • Extensive outreach enlisting community members to report and paint graffiti, using borrowed city tools and free paint to expedite paint-overs and cut costs
  • Use of technology through paint color matching, web-based communications, and motion-activated digital cameras to catch violators
  • Outreach training for the community
  • Financial rewards for tips that help apprehend graffiti violators
  • Prevention activities via city ordinances requiring that retailers lock up spray paint and refuse underage sales
  • Assignment of three detectives to investigate graffiti cases
  • Prosecution of graffiti vandals to obtain restitution and sentences
  • A probation program that allows first-time graffiti vandals to paint out graffiti in lieu of jail time
  • Advocacy for state legislative action supporting strong, uniform anti-graffiti laws

Much of the success in combating graffiti comes from the hands and paint sprayers of citizen volunteers. These dedicated residents know that taggers seek the instant gratification of having last night's graffiti handiwork seen by thousands of morning commuters. The volunteers won't let vandals have that satisfaction.

At last week's city council meeting, we met John Peace, a 76-year-old resident who has lived in the area for 50 years and painted out graffiti for the past four. He spends every weekend with neighbor Dwight Amery and the Maryvale UNITE Neighborhood Association volunteering to cover up graffiti. In the past year alone, John has personally painted over 1,000 graffiti sites.

In another part of town, Marion Frock took on the mission of protecting Phoenix 's Maryland Avenue Bicycle Bridge, designed by artist Judy Bales, from graffiti. Every morning, Marion checks the bridge and paints out graffiti. The city presented Marion with a special "Art Hero" award for these volunteer efforts.

Fighting graffiti is about partnership. By accepting graffiti as an important community priority and working doggedly to respond, the city demonstrates that it is listening to the community and cares about community issues. In return, the community provides volunteers and support for anti-graffiti programs and other neighborhood improvement efforts. This connection creates an atmosphere of hope and trust that is desperately needed.

While we know we're not likely to see graffiti completely erased, we have great confidence in our communitywide ability to continue developing new remedies, inspired by the energetic example of neighbors like John Peace.

In government, especially at the community level, most challenges do not have one-shot solutions. It takes time to listen to what residents and businesses want to change, and commitment to respond to problems in multiple ways. Very rarely can we declare a problem "solved" for good. We must be flexible and constantly improve solutions. The reward is in this journey and in the opportunity for us to build mutual trust and partnership with our community.