This article is an extended version of what appears in today’s

Daily Progress.

By Brian Wheeler

Charlottesville Tomorrow

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Mayor Dave Norris

and City Council hopeful

Kristin Szakos

on Tuesday called for a variety of initiatives they said would strengthen the voice of city neighborhoods in local government.

“One of the key things that we are proposing is the establishment of an Office of Neighborhood Advocate,” said Szakos.  “Someone whose job is to work with neighborhoods and to work with residents in our neighborhoods to help them navigate city hall…but to also help city government reach out to them.”

Szakos and the incumbent Norris, campaigning together for the City Council, called for the new office during a press conference at City Hall.

“We hear over and over that residents want more of a voice, and want more support from city hall, in these decisions that are being made that affect our neighborhoods,” said Norris.

“People feel that nobody is listening to them,” said Szakos.  “The city should also encourage volunteers to work for the city in neighborhood advocacy, historical preservation, and other areas.”

Norris said the new full-time employee would require no new funding in
the city’s budget and that it could be created by reassigning an
existing staff member or reallocating funds from a currently vacant

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Bob Fenwick

, an independent candidate for city council, said council is overdue engaging neighborhoods and acting on their concerns.

“Anything that gets better service to the citizens, I applaud,” said Fenwick in an interview.  “But people have been telling them for years that the sidewalks have been treacherous around town, but they don’t do anything about it.  There is more to it than just listening. They have to act.”

The other independent candidate on the ballot is

Paul Long

.  Long said in an interview that he was skeptical of the proposal.

“I am targeting my campaign towards people at the lower end of the economic spectrum.  These people are not used to participating in government and many of them have a great sense of hopelessness,” said Long.  “They don’t have the time or energy to respond to a neighborhood advocate.  The best way for people to be reached is to have city council members go out into the community themselves.”

Another proposal that Szakos has advocated for throughout her campaign is to move some council meetings out into the community.

“Regular meetings between city council and residents should be held in locations throughout the city, in schools and community centers, where residents can voice their concerns and offer suggestions on issues facing the city,” said Szakos.

Colette Hall is the President of the

North Downtown

Residents Association and Treasurer of the

Alliance of Neighborhoods

, a group with city and county representation that was formed in 2008.  In an interview, Hall said she would support topical neighborhood meetings in the community, but would be concerned if regular meetings were held outside city hall.

“I do not want to see official city council meetings outside of chambers because of accessibility,” said Hall.  “When they are on television, people can see them on another day.”

“I think it’s absolutely imperative that we make sure [television coverage] continues to happen,” said Szakos. “There are technologies that will make that possible, we are in the digital age and they are not insurmountable difficulties.”

Norris clarified that he was not necessarily calling for council’s regular meetings, held on the first and third Monday’s of each month, to be held outside of city hall.  He pointed out that he and Szakos may disagree on that matter.

“I think it’s vital to reinforce the point of getting city council out into the neighborhoods for town hall meetings, for neighborhood listening sessions, for issue specific conversations above and beyond the regular meetings,” said Norris.

On the issue of strengthening the voice of neighborhoods in local government, Colette Hall said it was an issue she had been “harping on” for the past 5 years.

“The past record of the city responding to neighborhood concerns has been abysmal,” said Hall.  “Neighborhoods get discouraged when they are ignored.”

Norris said that the proposals he and Szakos were recommending have been discussed with some of the leaders of the Alliance of Neighborhoods and been well received.

According to Hall, the alliance has been able to attract 12 member neighborhoods, but she said it was difficult to recruit participants, both in the alliance and in her local neighborhood association, “until a project impinges on them immediately.”

“People are too involved in their own lives,” said Hall.

Norris and Szakos called for the city to “encourage and support” the alliance and to help organize new neighborhood associations.

“Any one of us doing this in a vacuum is not as effective as all of us doing this together,” said Szakos.


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