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'Keys to the City' leads to debate on neighborhood congress

Thursday, May 7, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — The City of Columbia hosted a “Keys to the City” event Wednesday night, which included informal office hours with councilmembers, an information fair with city department booths, as well as a discussion surrounding the creation of a neighborhood congress.

While Wednesday marked its first official meeting, the details and the planning of the congress were vague, and many wondered if it was necessary.

With around 20 people in attendance from neighborhoods around Columbia, Tim Teddy, planning and development director for the city, took feedback based on the idea of the city forming a neighborhood congress.

“This is not something where city staff has prepared a presentation,” Teddy said. “This is where we want to hear your ideas and involve you to open up a new channel between the city and its neighborhood associations.”

While most citizens agreed by a show of hands that the concept could be very helpful in creating a partnership, many were skeptical.

Thad Simmons believed that while the idea of a congress was creative, the scope of its impact could be limited.

“We are not elected representatives of the city so to say that anything delivered from a neighborhood congress is anything more than helpful suggestions is disingenuous,” Simmons said. “Seventy to 100 people in a city of 96,000 people are not representative of the city."

Columbia resident Fred Schmidt had similar concerns.

“We need to be careful, because we really get in trouble when we’re not in any sense representative of the whole neighborhood but we try to speak for other people,” Schmidt said.

Janet Hammen was more optimistic about the possibility of increasing involvement.

“The more citizens participate, the more they feel connected to the city as a whole,” Hammen said. “So maybe the name 'congress' could be something different. It’s more than a picnic but less than a congress.”

Teddy said that the focus was not on neighborhood power but increased communication.

“It’s not about power, it’s about elevating participation,” Teddy said. “Giving neighborhoods the opportunity to communicate and delegating power are very different.”

According to Teddy, the overall strategy of the congress is to achieve higher public participation through new communication mechanisms. He stated that it could range anywhere from a town-hall structure to citizen requests for presentations from the city.

While he supported the idea of government-citizen communication, H.G. Wilson believed the congress idea needs to be downsized.

“Once a year for a congress is great, but I think it would be more beneficial for me to get to know eight or 10 people in the city who I can meet with more than once a year about problems in my neighborhood,” Wilson said.

While the idea of a citizen congress encompassing all of Columbia’s more than 70 neighborhood associations is diplomatic, for some like Simmons, it doesn’t seem plausible.

“I’m not saying there’s not a need for it, but any citizen can have an opinion. Where is it going to go from there?”

 


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