Sunday, May 12, 2013

Foster Slowly Strangling The Neighborhood Associations

Bill Foster has put on an appearance of supporting the neighborhood associations in St. Pete, but behind the scenes he has steadily worked to diminish their effectiveness and influence.
For example, the Neighborhood Partnership Grants Program was set up to encourage neighborhoods to plan specific projects, document them, provide an approval process and funding for those projects.
This effort is a lot more than prettying up a neighborhood entrance or putting up a sign, it is an opportunity for citizens to get into the process and see how projects are planned, approved, funded and implemented.
The last year for the Neighborhood Partnership Grants Program was fiscal year (FY) 2012. With decreased budgets (General Capital and Penny dollars) for projects, the program was not funded in FY 13 (current year) or proposed for FY 14.
Two FY 12 grant recipients are in the process of completing their FY 12 projects; the other recipients have completed their projects.
The neighborhood association program was the effort of Mayor David Fisher to provide a more open government, more civic participation and encourage citizen participation in city governance.
Candidly, it was not real popular with staff, all of those pesky citizens meeting with staff, asking questions, learning about how things actually get done, sometimes gets in the way of progress as politicians and civil servants describe it.
Mayor Fisher was adamant about the Neighborhood process, Mayor Baker learned how to use it effectively and Mayor Foster has generally done about all he can to dismantle it. 
Under the guise of budget cuts, Foster has reduced the Neighborhood support staff and eliminated programs like Neighborhood Partnership Grants.
Through the Mayor's leading, or lack thereof, a strong message has been sent to staff that input from neighborhood associations and the Council of Neighborhood Associations (CONA) isn't really all that important.
Neighborhood associations, and CONA should be the source for on the ground programs that are needed, an information exchange channel and an incubator for future community leaders to learn how the City government functions.
To be fair, in some cases CONA has been its own worst enemy, but Foster's efforts to minimize the neighborhoods has been effective.
In the past a CONA meeting would have 50 to 60 people in attendance with a compliment of city staff and Police Department officials. Today the attendance is more like 20 to 30 people with little support from city staff save the lone City staff member still working with the neighborhoods.
Without neighborhood input, local government reverts to what it thinks is best and that is where St. Pete finds itself.
David Fisher was a visionary and not afraid of what the people thought, Rick Baker was an implementer who knew how to use the power of neighborhood involvement to make things better and Bill Foster -  I'll leave that one to you, but one only has to watch City Council meeting after City Council meeting full of angry citizens to know something is just not right.

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