Follow-through on council’s town halls at issue
In 2010 and 2011, the Charlottesville City Council held town hall meetings in all of the city’s neighborhoods in order to reach out to people who would ordinarily not attend a regular meeting at City Hall.
City staff collected the many suggestions and problems expressed at those meetings and recorded them in a matrix, pledging to keep track of efforts to solve community concerns on the city website.
However, almost a year later, the site is outdated, still advertising the 2011 schedule. Moreover, the “Track Our Progress” matrix hasn’t been updated since Jan. 24.
According to the tracking document, Councilors received about 205 comments and questions from the public. Of those, 57 issues are listed with a status of “Completed,” 66 are labeled as “In Process” and 82 are blank, with no status listed.
At the May 2011 meeting for the Fry’s Spring and Johnson Village neighborhoods, Mulberry Avenue resident David Tooley voiced his concerns about traffic cutting through his neighborhood at high speeds.
“Cut through on Mulberry, people travel at high speeds, one lane, no sidewalks; Have Mulberry be one-way to avoid cut-through,” reads the corresponding explanation on the progress tracker under the column titled “Issue.”
Even though the area under the column marked “Status” is blank, the road was temporarily converted to a one-way street in August 2011 during the replacement of the Jefferson Park Avenue bridge.
Hardy Whitten is the president of the Fry’s Spring Neighborhood Association. He says that for the most part, city response has been positive.
“About a third of [the items] the city addressed, actively. About a third of them are long-term items that the city hasn’t addressed but maybe the city could address at some point in the future,” Whitten said. “The remaining third is stuff the city would say, one way or another, we can’t do anything about.”
According to Ric Barrick, the city’s former communications director, members of the public lost interest in tracking the progress of their comments.
“People really weren’t going back to check on them so it wasn’t our highest priority,” Barrick said, adding that often comments were things the city could not have acted on. “A lot of these
things were more general statements. It was hard to give it a tracking button when it is not a specific thing.”
Councilor Dede Smith said she feels that the issue comes down to website maintenance.
“Clearly, there is a lapse in updating, which is different than a lapse in following through on the list itself,” Smith said in an email. “We just had a change in communication directors. I suspect it may be more an update issue than anything.”
This year, the City Council opted to reserve the money that would have been used for town hall meetings, preferring instead to support community-organized events, such as the Fry’s Spring’s annual Oktoberfest celebration.
Assistant City Manager David Ellis said the city is simply expanding on the model in collaboration with Charlottesville’s 250th anniversary.
“This is an opportunity to combine and celebrate Charlottesville’s 250th anniversary. It’s an opportunity for celebration but it’s also an opportunity for many folks to have their community meetings during the celebration, which again gives folks an opportunity to interact with staff and elected officials,” Ellis said. “It’s more of a continuation of what we’ve done in 2011.”
Ellis, who was appointed to his position in February, concedes that the website is old, but is committed to keeping it current as part of his new position, even as the city adjusts its neighborhood outreach model.
“One of the things that we’re doing is trying to keep folks up to date,” Ellis said, adding that the city will try to keep in contact with specific complainants. “We want to make sure that they know that we’ve heard their concern and that we’re taking care of it.”
According to Whitten, it’s not as much how city officials connect with residents so much as that they attempt to do so in some way.
“Doing it one way, one year, and this year choosing to do it as financial support … I think both serve a purpose, but it’s great when City Council members want to hear from members of the public,” Whitten said. “It’s very well received when the city comes to something that members of the community put on as opposed to citizens having to go to them as a command performance.”