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February 19, 2010

City considering neighborhood advocate position

Reader comments (2) By Sean Tubbs
Charlottesville Tomorrow
Friday, February 19, 2010

Charlottesville City Council decided Tuesday to study the creation of a “neighborhood advocate” position to facilitate neighborhood outreach efforts and to educate city residents about local government decisions. The concept was raised  by Councilors Dave Norris and Kristin Szakos  during last year’s City Council campaign.

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Jim Tolbert addresses City Council

“The role [would be] to strengthen the voice and participation of neighborhoods in decisions that affect their lives,” said Jim Tolbert, the city’s director of Neighborhood Development Services. “The duties of this type of position would include coordination of activities with neighborhoods, maintaining neighborhood contacts, keeping neighborhood websites up to date… anything for informing the neighborhoods,” Tolbert said during a report to Council on Tuesday night.

Assistant City Manager Maurice Jones, who succeeds current City Manager Gary O’Connell on an interim basis in April, said the neighborhood advocate would help revive dormant neighborhood associations.

“In order to really invigorate a number of our neighborhood associations, more focus needs to be put on the associations on a regular basis,” Jones said. “We see this person thinking about neighborhoods on a daily basis… being out front on very important issues here in the city.”

Download Download staff report on the neighborhood advocate position

However, representatives of some neighborhoods were surprised by the presence of the report on Council’s agenda.

Peter Hedlund of the Fry’s Spring Neighborhood Association said in a written statement that his group was reserving judgment on the position until more details were available.

“We appreciate that the City Council is considering ways to strengthen the relationship between the city and the neighborhoods,” Hedlund wrote. “However adding another layer of bureaucracy and another salary is not the way to accomplish this.”

Colette Hall, the president of the North Downtown Residents’ Association, questioned whether it was worthwhile to pay someone between $50,000 and $75,000 for the position.

Jack Brown, president of the Alliance of Neighborhoods, said neighborhood associations draw attention to major issues such as traffic congestion, poor infrastructure, and a lack of coordination between Charlottesville and Albemarle.

 “Vibrant grass-roots organizations in the neighborhoods could really help the city in creating policies that are effective and address real needs,” Brown said in an interview. He praised the  Fry’s Spring and Johnson Village associations for pushing the city to prepare a traffic management plan for when a bridge on Jefferson Park Avenue Extended is closed later this year.

Brown has several suggestions for improvement, including requiring City Councilors to attend neighborhood meetings on a regular basis, as well as greater efforts to obtain neighborhood input while major capital projects such as the Meadowcreek Interceptor project are designed and developed.

What role will the new city manager play?

Councilor David Brown said this position would be especially useful as the city’s population grows, but said it might be better to create the position once a new city manager is chosen to replace the departing O’Connell.

“I will bet that [valuing the] involvement of neighborhoods is going to be a part of [that job] description, and so I’d like for whoever the city manager is to come in feeling like this is a position they get to help shape,” Councilor Brown said.

But Szakos said she heard a lot of people during the campaign who liked the idea, and she wanted neighborhoods to work with staff to make the proposed position a reality.

 “I would love to see us go forward because I think yes, the city manager should have a piece in this, but I think that it’s the community that’s already here that [knows] what the needs are,” Szakos said. She also said she wanted to reach out to people who are not actually members of their neighborhood association.

“I do think that there is a higher priority right now -- hiring the right city manager,” said Jack Brown. “If that person takes neighborhoods seriously, then matters will improve -- with or without the new neighborhood advocate.”

City staff will now work with neighborhoods over the next three months to get their input before returning to Council with more details in the spring.

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