Campus & Community / Magazine Feature

Neighborhood associations lack clout, activists say

When political newcomer Chris Nevitt took his seat on Denver City Council for the first time July 13, he did so with the support of only 21 percent of the voters in his district.

About 13 percent in the June 5 runoff election preferred someone else, and 66 percent of eligible District 7 voters didn’t mail back a ballot at all. With only 3,617 votes, Nevitt won decisively.

Yet, for the next four years, each of Nevitt’s decisions on council will be on behalf of all 50,000 residents of his district.

That such a key role could be vested in a person empowered by so few is an oddity not lost on neighborhood activists.

“City Council members are elected by a tiny slice of the voting public, but no one says they’re not representative,” says Dave Reusch, co-chair of the West University Community Association (WUCA). “How are RNOs different?”

Activists like Reusch charge that Registered Neighborhood Organizations, known as RNOs, don’t receive the status elected officials get even though both ride to responsibility on the coattails of only a sliver of their constituencies. Instead, he says, RNOs are pushed to the back of the bus by processes that seek their opinion but deny them clout. Neighbors’ opinions end up being too little, too late and of too little weight.

Nevitt, among others, is sympathetic.

“They’re left twisting in the wind — invited to participate but with no clear expectation of what they can do,” says Nevitt. “It’s a formula for frustration.”

Some of that may be their own fault, observes District 6 Councilman Charlie Brown, who along with four other city council members was unopposed in the May 1 election. RNOs often are dominated by a small number of activists, Brown points out, who “can’t see beyond the end of their own sidewalk” and who don’t speak for their entire neighborhoods.

“I’ve got 23 registered neighborhood associations [in District 6]. I can go to any one of them and tell you who’s gonna be there, where they’re sitting and what their gripes are going to be.”

Activists in some of the 218 or so RNOs in Denver say Brown has a point. Membership is often low, apathy high and the reputations of “difficult” RNOs can easily tar the reputations of all.

A volunteer effort

On the other hand, RNOs are also complicated, time-consuming, thankless volunteer efforts that not many people have the time or interest to engage in. City code requires an RNO to be notified of pending actions in 30 different categories of city business, everything from zoning changes and variances to liquor license applications, planning board hearings and street repairs.

“The ideal is to let immediately adjacent neighbors know of notices that come in,” says Michael Henry, board member of INC, a coalition of neighborhood groups. “But the truth is we don’t have the energy to go knocking on doors. You have to be smart and understand what the notice means.”

Sometimes notices require a position. Does the RNO support, reject or have no opinion about the issue at hand?

But that’s not so easily obtained. Oftentimes, little is known of the full scope of a project or how a decision will end up affecting residents. RNO leaders can’t always turn to problem solvers such as Assistant Vice Chancellor Neil Krauss, who as the University’s community liaison, tackles a variety of neighborhood concerns. Instead, the RNOs often have little to go on or must grapple with inaccurate, incomplete or contradictory facts. That kind of environment breeds rumor, frustration and a feeling that neighbors’ views don’t count for much when city officials make decisions.

City staffers and elected officials strongly deny that, but acknowledge that the council’s obligation to look at “the big picture” sometimes trumps neighborhood concerns.

“If I listen to every laissez-faire developer, nothing would be safe,” says Brown. “If I listened to every screaming activist, nothing would be built. So I see my job as trying to balance that.”

That’s like loading bullfrogs in a pickup, he quips. “You get three in the back and try to load more and they keep hoppin’ out and hoppin’ in. It never stops.”

Taking the temperature

Julie Connor, an unsuccessful District 7 candidate and former senior aide to past Councilwoman Kathleen MacKenzie, says RNOs provide an important “quick read” on how hot an issue is.

“Although [a council person] represents all the residents, you’re going to be most concerned about the population that votes. And the population that votes is going to the activist population. And that’s what an RNO represents — the activist population.”

If elected officials are using RNOs to take the temperature of the neighborhoods, RNOs need to be able to record that temperature fast and take it accurately, says Sharon Withers, president of the Platt Park People’s Association.

“Education is a big part of the job,” says Withers, who allows that door-to-door contact often is necessary. “You have to hit them with the same message at least three times.”

Even then, framing the question is a struggle. “A lot of times people don’t understand the question on the table,” she says. “They think they have a choice that’s not there, that the choice is ‘no change at all.’”

People don’t like hearing that, she says, so they blame someone: city staff, elected officials, other neighbors, RNO leaders.

“After something happens, I hear: ‘Why did you let that happen?’ or ‘Why did you do that?’ Well, it’s not you, it’s us.”

The trouble is that “us” doesn’t go door to door to build political muscle. Most often, says WUCA’s Reusch, it’s RNO leaders on their own, scurrying through their neighborhoods “like Keystone cops,” gathering facts, educating, overcoming “waves of sentiment” and then struggling to affect an issue that may already have been decided behind closed city doors.

“We’re not always going to get what we want,” Withers allows. “But if we do our job, when we stand up we can say, ‘Yes, we know what the people want and we know who they are.’”

An ad hoc approach

Which is why Withers favors an ad hoc approach to issues. With a membership of about 350 households of some 3,200 in her group’s boundaries, she can’t hope to have a powerful block behind her on every issue. But if she and her volunteer directors engage the people most affected and galvanize them, the outcome may turn productive.

“So, when I stand before City Council I can say to Charlie Brown and everyone else that we have this many members; this many attended our meetings; we distributed fliers six times to 300 homes; I got this many e-mails and this is the response of the people: They want this.

“We really have to be careful when we represent opinions that we really do have foundation for it and it isn’t based on gut-level intuition.”

That means staying in touch with as many neighbors as possible, engaging them, encouraging them, even badgering them to join in — a job most easily accomplished with a healthy dose of fun. More than 500 people turned out for the Platt Park picnic in July and the RNO is planning a full slate of social events in addition.

“If neighbors have fun together, it’s easier to build some interest in these not-so-fun topics,” Withers says.

Fun also helps smooth differences.

“It’s a lot harder to yell at someone if you’ve been having wine and cheese with them the Friday night before,” she says.

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