"Seniors, Grow folks learn system"
June 9, 2008 · Updated 3:08 PM
"How can you get your pet issue to show up on the city's radar screen?If you want to call attention to traffic problems, you might borrow a radar gun itself. As reported a few issues back, that was the strategy of some industrious Grow Avenue neighbors concerned about chronic speeders on their street. The Senior Center Pedestrian Safety Committee took a similarly proactive tack. Troubled by neglected crosswalks and poor pedestrian access around town, they've devoted months to an informal traffic study, documenting conditions and offering recommendations for crosswalks, signs and the like - to the point that the city council is considering a $60,000 mid-year improvement package to meet their needs.What we're seeing are citizen activists bringing their issues to the fore of the city agenda - effectively. A few lessons are suggested:Work the system: The majority of city council business is conducted behind the scenes, in committee. That is not to say it's done outside the public purview, but there's far more to the debate on current issues than you see on the cable TV broadcast. And as the senior pedestrian group has found, there's no substitute for becoming a familiar face, establishing rapport, becoming a regular part of the process. Around city hall, doors open for that group, affordable housing advocates, the Fort Ward sewer district and other small constituencies, precisely because they've taken the time to attend committee meetings and become players.Form coalitions, not mobs: Periodically over the past few years, we've seen activist groups march on the council chambers en masse, hoping to shock everyone with their tales of frustration and anger. This pitchfork-and-torch approach may play well for the cameras, but it's puerile and ineffective - not least because it doesn't invite dialogue. After one such demonstration last year, city officials immediately disputed much of the presentation as misleading or misinformed. But who could tell, when after the meeting, the complainants vanished back into the woodwork? Here again, the real work is taking place behind the scenes. Activists need to be prepared to work behind the scenes, where the agenda really takes shape.Present facts, not just gripes: Anybody can show up at city hall and carp. But the Grow neighbors and the pedestrian group are being taken seriously because they've taken the time to go beyond bromides and generalities, to document problems that others may only generally perceive. The pedestrian group has spent hours at the roadside documenting poor conditions, and as a result, is likely to see some crosswalk improvements that will be months or years ahead of what's called for in the city's capital plan. The Grow neighbors should prove to be the visible catalyst for a new era of community traffic policing, as the city considers the purchase and use of a radar speed billboard sought by police.In both cases, we're seeing citizens try an approach that is a lot more constructive than simply sitting around and whining that nothing ever gets done. And as we're seeing, it works.Got a problem in your neighborhood? Go ahead and ask what your city can do for you.But be willing to do something for yourself first. "