Neighborhood Power in El Paso

They say you can’t fight city hall, but in El Paso, Texas, you may not have to. The city’s local and appointed officials have gone out of their way to seek input from the city’s 67 neighborhood organizations, and if a neighborhood doesn’t have an association, the city’s Neighborhood Services division will help them organize one.

In the past, existing neighborhood groups tended to get engaged when a “hot button” issue was before the council. Otherwise, the residents weren’t particularly active, and some parts of the city had no neighborhood associations at all. Local leaders realized they needed to provide more opportunities for citizens to be active in government and worked to develop specific strategies to help educate, organize and empower citizens.

The program dates back to 2003, when then mayor Joe Wordy and the El Paso City Council passed the city’s first Neighborhood Recognition ordinance. The city hired a neighborhood liaison to help set the wheels in motion.

“We decided to set up a structure where you would have recognized neighborhood associations,” said El Paso Mayor John Cook, a city council member at the time. “Not just people who got together because their garbage wasn’t picked up or something like that but (people who) really wanted to improve their community.”

Around the same time, El Paso was switching from a council-mayor form of government, to a council-manager system, and when Joyce Wilson, the new city manager came on board, she spearheaded a visioning process to identify challenges and policy goals. A Neighborhood Services division was created to formalize the new emphasis on neighborhood power.

In 2006, an improved Neighborhood Recognition ordinance was adopted to further define neighborhood boundaries. The city identified those neighborhoods that weren’t represented and started looking for ways to bring them to the table.

An annual Neighborhood Leadership Academy was convened to provide citizens with the direction and savvy they need to navigate city processes and to become neighborhood resources and ambassadors. The academy seeks out nontraditional leaders to ensure that all members of the community are represented.

The city is also putting money behind the new empowerment ethos. A Neighborhood Improvement Program gives residents opportunities to submit their own neighborhood-driven small-scale capital projects. During the first two rounds of the program, $850,000 has been expended and 21 projects completed.

“You can give people an open (microphone) all you want,” said Cook, “but if you don’t give them any money to really make a difference in their community, they’re going to get frustrated and the apathy kicks in once again.”

The number of neighborhood associations has increased from 35 to 67, and citizens feel they have more say in the decision-making process. “The city council now asks if the associations are aware of regulatory changes and they ask for our feedback,” said Lynn Coyle, president of the Newman Park Neighborhood Association.

Mayor Cook said the city’s citizen engagement program has buy-in from all the city council members who actively go out and speak in neighborhoods to try to get people more actively involved.

“You’re a wonderful community,” said Sharon Metz, foreperson of the All-America City Award jury after the El Paso delegation presented its case at the 2010 award program in Kansas City. “I’ve always said if people in the community do not care who gets the credit and just work together you can do amazing things, and obviously your community is an example of that.”

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