By Gregory Korte
The Cincinnati Enquirer
In 30 years of working in Cincinnati's neighborhoods - beginning as an aide to Mayor Jerry Springer - Gene Beaupre had never seen more than a few dozen neighborhood leaders from different parts of the city in one room.Until Saturday.
More than 400 neighborhood leaders, activists and everyday citizens - from Sayler Park to California and from downtown to College Hill - packed a banquet room at Xavier University's Cintas Center to ask questions of their elected leaders.
Mr. Beaupre, a political science instructor and the moderator, collected 100 index cards with questions from neighborhood leaders in the first hour. By the end of the day, the pile "had grown like mushrooms in a warm room," he said.
If nothing else, a consensus emerged: make the first-ever "Neighborhood Summit" an annual event.
Over seven hours, city officials tried to listen to neighborhoods, explain city government and boost the morale of neighborhood leaders.
"2002 is over, and I am glad," Mayor Charlie Luken told them. "2002 was a year of newness - a new city manager, a new system, new policies, new procedures in place, new ways of doing things.
"2003 is the year of the rollout. We can't just have new policies on paper. We have to see some results."
Councilman David Pepper, an organizer of the summit, told a sometimes skeptical audience that City Council is already responding to their concerns:
A $2 million rider to the 2003-04 budget ordinance that earmarks money for neighborhood-initiated projects. Called the "Safe and Clean Neighborhood Fund," it will provide grants to neighborhood projects focused on improving safety or quality of life.
Tax incentives to promote development in neighborhood business districts like Walnut Hills, Evanston and Over-the-Rhine.
Changes in City Council's own rules that will require committees to meet in neighborhoods more often.
It's that last change that seemed to strike the most responsive chord with neighborhood leaders, who say they've been frustrated by a lack of communication with City Hall. Though community councils were set up to advise City Council on neighborhood issues like liquor licenses and zoning disputes, some complained that their opinions are given no more weight than those of any other interest group.
They cited Mayor Luken's proposal to cut in half the Neighborhood Support Program - which gives up to $10,000 to each community council for things like newsletters and cleanup projects. Mr. Luken admitted Saturday that the proposed cut was "stupid" - a failed attempt to instill a sense of shared responsibility during a period of budget austerity.
"You talk about neighborhoods, but then one of the first things we heard is that our budget was going to be cut," said Winton Place Community Council President Ron Perry.
But City Manager Valerie Lemmie told him that those cuts were the first to be reinstated after neighborhoods packed budget hearings to complain. "I think you should applaud the mayor and council for listening to you," she said.
Many, too, lamented the passing of the C-NAS program. The Cincinnati Neighborhood Action Strategy, an invention of former City Manager John Shirey, assigned 14 teams of city employees to various neighborhoods. Ms. Lemmie wants to replace it with Community Problem-Oriented Policing, or CPOP, which will put 44 police officers in charge of a variety of neighborhood problems - not all of them directly safety-related.
In a 2001 telephone survey of city residents, more than 80 percent said they had never heard of Mr. Shirey's program, even after pollsters told them what it was.
But some neighborhood leaders, especially in Oakley and Winton Place, said C-NAS was working. Indeed, a 45-minute session explaining CPOP was so overwhelmed by questions that Mr. Pepper promised a special committee session to deal with just that issue.
Council members said they'd like to see reforms in the way community councils are organized, to ensure that the councils truly represent a cross-section of neighborhood views. They want the councils to weigh both sides of a given issue, and to report to City Council each year on their goals and accomplishments.
"Sometimes, quite frankly, we don't have the kind of democratic leadership we need," said Councilman David Crowley. "There's a suppression of new ideas, and new membership is discouraged."
That led Oakley Community Council President Sue Doucleff, one of the city's most vocal neighborhood leaders, to ask City Council: "Are you sure you represent all the citizens of Cincinnati?" It was one of the biggest applause lines of the day.
Still, the mood of the day was mostly positive. Even Councilman Pat DeWine, who has been openly critical of some councils, said neighborhood groups are more often right than wrong.
The "broken windows" theory of government - that attention to smaller neighborhood problems like graffiti and abandoned cars can head off more serious crime down the road - has finally taken hold at City Hall, Mr. DeWine said.
"Community councils were the people who go it first. And the administration and the politicians and the bureaucrats didn't get it. But we're starting to get it," he said. "The community council system can really drive the agenda in this city."
Neighborhood leaders spent much of the day in how-to sessions: how to run effective meetings, how to build coalitions, how to take a blighted property to housing court, and how to lobby City Hall.
City officials and neighborhood leaders said the challenge will be to maintain the momentum from Saturday's meeting.
To that end, Councilman Paul Booth proposed a "Council of Community Councils" through which neighborhood leaders could share ideas and increase their clout at City Hall.
Two groups that sponsored Saturday's session - Invest in Neighborhoods and the Grassroots Leadership Academy - already perform some of those functions, but council members said those cross-town bonds should be strengthened.
"More citizens need to take advantage of community councils," Mr. Booth said. "There's strength in numbers, and there's strength in speaking with one voice."
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