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Communities Have a Lot to Tell Local Officials. They Need to Listen.

City leaders must ensure that the voices of all residents are heard. It’s easier said than done.

Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens reading with schoolchildren.
Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens reads to elementary school students. Dickens declared 2023 to be the “Year of the Youth,” launching a number of programs that echoed ideas from community meetings three decades earlier.
(Photo: Atlanta Public Schools)
Just a few decades ago, local government officials typically made critical decisions about the future of their cities by meeting with business leaders and deciding together what projects would be built and what progress would look like, not only at the time but also 10 or 20 years out. Inevitably, they also decided how contracts would be divvied up among the business leaders in the smoke-filled rooms where they met. This process left the community out of the decision-making process.

Later, as African American businesses gained a foothold during the Jim Crow era, catering to mostly Black customers, a few Black business leaders were invited into the room. In my city, they called this “the Atlanta Way.” I am sure there were also Chicago Ways, Dallas Ways and St. Louis Ways.

We haven’t entirely left those days behind. Recently — in a friendly discussion with a prominent local journalist who had started a nonprofit organization that contained a version of the original “Atlanta Way” in its official organization name — I advised her not to use the old expression because of the negative associations it might carry among some who opposed that type of governing. She justified using it because she believed that the way decisions were made in the past was basically all right, except that it didn’t include enough people at the table. Her solution: Invite more people to sit at the table. I think she meant well, but it is not that simple.

Public officials who want to truly transform how their governments make critical decisions must ensure that the voices of their residents — all of their residents — are heard. By this I mean that citizen input cannot be an afterthought or merely seen as a necessary evil; it must be considered a civic right, even a civil right. Residents must have input not only on land use and zoning issues but on all matters pertaining to the quality of life in their neighborhoods and the budgetary priorities of their local governments. Having been a public official, I can attest that this is easier said than done.

One of my first priorities when I was elected to the Atlanta City Council was to engage my constituents in the decision-making process. In most cities, there has never been a shortage of input from neighborhood activist types, but community input is different from activists’ input. I wanted to make community empowerment central to how I governed.

At the time, in the early 1990s, Atlanta had a network of neighborhood block clubs and civic associations. Those groups operated more like social clubs, organizing holiday parties and neighborhood cleanups. Some of them hosted political candidates, though many of those candidates showed up only every four years around election time.

To glean better input to improve my council district, I realized early on that it would behoove me to help those civic clubs and individuals gain a little more political seasoning and education. My solution was to organize what we called “community empowerment conferences,” which were designed to accomplish two objectives. First, to educate community leaders on how local government worked and how to make it work for them, and second, to obtain input on important issues that would help transform their communities for the better.
An Atlanta community empowerment conference
A community empowerment conference in Atlanta in the early 1990s. One theme that emerged from resident input was a need for programs for youth. (Photo provided by the author)
I often published the outcomes, highlighting the citizen input from those meetings, in columns in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. I was intentional about amplifying the voices and recommendations from my constituents in print so that other public officials would benefit from reading about their viewpoints. In reviewing an op-ed of mine from 1992, I was reminded that my constituents had recommended that the city establish an “Office of Youth,” build youth activity centers and provide youth with jobs and mentorships programs.

Interestingly, Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens declared 2023 the “Year of the Youth,” and he is in the process of implementing a number of programs that look a lot like those called for at my community empowerment conferences 30 years ago. This illustrates how slowly the wheels of government turn, but it also suggests the tendency of today’s politicians to reinvent the wheel, not fully cognizant of ideas that came before. Above all, it calls for more intergenerational dialog between past and current elected officials and more sharing among local governments of best practices, some of which come out of substantive interaction with citizens.

These days, different cities acquire community input in different ways. New York City has an elaborate system of 59 community boards that provide input about all things impacting neighborhoods, from zoning change requests to community complaints. Atlanta has divided its neighborhoods into 25 “neighborhood planning units.” Most cities have some form of these community boards or commissions. They are usually advisory in nature.

What I am calling for is not more community advisory boards but more structured input on governance and spending priorities. If you want to know what cities truly value, take a look at their budgets. The public needs to help set local spending priorities and not just react to them once they are set by public officials.

While most decisions pertaining to our cities and towns are no longer made by politicians and businessmen in smoke-filled rooms, there are still many public officials who don’t take seriously the voices of residents. Too much public policy today is still influenced by lobbyists, business leaders and those residents with the deepest pockets. Allowing the voices of all residents to be heard is important to democracy and good governance. And if we listen to the input they provide, it might not take 30 years to prioritize and fund some of our cities’ most needed programs.

Governing’s opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing’s editors or management.
Government and education columnist
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