Lost In Transition Part 2

Update: this blog post got linked to by the newpaper’s Sunday Postscript: both on page A2 of the printed Sunday January 17th Post-Standard and here at their website. Thanks to Brian Cubbison at the Post.

The mayor of Syracuse, Stephanie Miner, just released a report from her Transition Team (PDF) entitled Renewing The Promise of Syracuse. I was the chairperson of the sub-committee looking at issues of Community Development, Housing and Neighborhoods.

Our task was to discuss the issues raised by the Mayor in her 50- point Plan for Syracuse, released during her campaign. Our ideas were intended to flesh out some of her points and to eventually prioritize 3-4 suggestions for important actions that should be dealt with as soon as practically possible.

Our committee met three times, the sub-committee appointees augmented by the active participation of Transition co-chair Catherine Richardson. We were not tasked with submitting any written document, but to have a wide-ranging discussion. The meetings were also attended by staff people from the campaign who took notes and distributed minutes back to each of the participants. These transition staff people: Luke Dougherty, Anthony Brigandi and Andrew Maxwell are the folks that pulled the formal document together (with no credit either, looking through the final document.)

I was given no background on the process prior to the first meeting, so the first meeting started slowly– trying to figure out what our task was to be and how we would proceed. My role as chairperson was mostly to act as facilitator of the discussion. As such, I fell back on all the trainings I have given to community leaders on meeting facilitation: the chair should not dominate the discussion; if possible, refer your comments back to other folk’s comments; get everyone involved; don’t let individuals overwhelm the discussion.

It was interesting to note no disagreement within the committee on the need for an immediate and substantive change in philosophy when dealing with community development and neighborhood issues. The meetings were not rancorous in the least (even with an occasionally caustic comment that I just couldn’t keep bottled up–once a smartass, always a smartass, I guess.)

I was a little surprised, since the committee represented groups with diverse approaches to community development: housing agencies, community organizing groups, social service agencies, community foundations, unions, academics, housing preservation activists. The dearth of both imagination and a serious dedication to well-thought out policy on the part of prior administrations focused the committee on the importance of fundamental change and trumped any individual differences on eventual implementation.

Ten separate strategies in Mayor Miner’s Plan for Syracuse dealt with issues of Community Development. At our first meeting, we discussed each point and came to a consensus on the priorities of the committee: 1) The need to create a separate and autonomous planning department that will deal with issues such as zoning, code, land use and economic development. 2) The funding received from the federal government, the Community Development Block Grant, needs to be spent on concrete housing projects, minimizing the amount spent on overhead such as City Hall salaries. 3) The new city planning entity needs to work with housing non-profits and community groups to draft a housing plan that will outline a systematic approach to the problems we face–vacant houses, absentee landlords, city code enforcement, historic preservation, demolition, low rates of homeownership and a lack of protections for tenants. 4) The city needs to fundamentally overhaul its Tomorrow’s Neighborhoods Today (TNT) program, in order to create a meaningful way for city residents to participate in the city’s planning projects.

The second meeting consisted of discussions with three current city staff people dealing with the issues we were most concerned with: city senior planner Steve Kearney, Deputy Commissioner of Community Development Paul Driscoll and Zoning administrator Heather Lamendola.

Steve Kearney obviously has spent a great deal of time thinking about restructuring the city’s Planning operation–presenting us with an organizational chart for an expanded department, in addition to answering our questions.

Paul Driscoll, who had been brought into Community Development to help during the former Commissioner’s illness and eventual death, had also thought about how to restructure the department. However, what I found most telling was his commitment to have the city lead the discussions with private lenders for increased funding, a task that had fallen by default to individual housing non-profits. He identified the anemic real estate market as our city’s major housing problem, noting that government did not have nearly enough money to effectively deal with the extensive housing problems facing the city.

Heather Lamendola unwound the byzantine operations of Zoning for us–its unique status as a city/county entity, its relations with the Common Council, Planning Commission, Board of Zoning Appeals and the Mayor’s office. She noted a raft of mostly commonsense strategies that the mayor could take to improve efficiencies.

The final meeting was preceded with several days of sub-committee members e-mailing their thoughts back and forth on what we should present to the Transition Committee as our final recommendations. Among the impressive contributions during this flurry of e-mails: Emanuel Carter and George Curry from ESF and Christine Capella-Peters, the local representative from NY State’s Department of State Historic Preservation put together a joint proposal for a restructured Planning Department that was incredibly impressive. Kerry Quaglia from Home Headquarters and myself each put forward detailed plans on how to reform the Community Development Block Grant process. Dominick Robinson of the Northside Collaboratory exhorted us to not forget the importance of developing human capital, to improve the ability of those facing serious financial, educational and health issues to fashion a life of dignity and stability for themselves.

The final meeting went too fast. The discussion centered on the detailed plans, often including plans for implementation. Every member of the sub-committee played an important role in helping define our recommendations. It is unfortunate that the report really only serves as an outline of our discussions. The details we discussed went much deeper than the rather straightforward recommendations in the final report. I guess all that information will become evident when our sub-committee folks get involved with the actual work of translating the recommendations from ideas to actual policy.

I’m hopeful for the future of our city, based on the opportunity to help craft the Transition Report. In Syracuse, to paraphrase John Lennon, “stupid city government is over, if you want it!”

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