Magazine article Nation's Cities Weekly

Citizens and Governments Forge New Links

Magazine article Nation's Cities Weekly

Citizens and Governments Forge New Links

Article excerpt

As Congress and President Clinton sparred over billion-dollar federal budget cuts, residents of Burlington, Vt, met recently to mull over a proposal for new slide and swing set in a local park. The Burlington neighbors quickly approved the plan, avoiding the partisan finger-pointing typical of Washington's political discourse.

In a growing number of localities, citizens are taking a direct part in the governing process.

Those gathered in Burlington's Ward 2 were not elected officials but they--and members of parallel assemblies in the city's six other wards--have the authority to decide how Burlington's federal Community Development Block Grant will be spent.

While informal neighborhood groups have long. been a fixture in American communities, a more recent development ia giving citizens a recognized role in the public policy process.

Burlington and scores of other cities across the nation have created what are variously called "priority boards," "district councils," or "assemblies." These bodies are giving citizens real power--the ability to have an impact on spending decisions and to get things done at the grassroots level, say their advocates.

"It's fashionable to be anti-government these days," said Cilla Shindell, manager of citizen participation for the city of Dayton, Ohio. "We believe that these kinds of processes are the antidote to that kind of cynicism."

Beginning in the `70s, as the War on Poverty stressed "maximum feasible participation" by citizens, St. Paul, Minn., Dayton, and Birmingham, Ala., created the first of these quasi-official bodies for citizen input into planning for their neighborhoods.

A key factor in the effectiveness of these citizen bodies is that they are recognized in some formal sense by the city government, said Ken Thomson, co-author of "The Rebirth of Urban Democracy." Along with the recognition comes a "legitimacy that they wouldn't otherwise have," he said. …

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