Rose Park resident Ron Jarrett remembers waking up one morning in 2009 to find a green stripe for a bicycle lane running along both sides of 1200 West, down the length of the western boundary of Rose Park. Jarrett, also the chair of the Rose Park Community Council, recalls being surprised by the new bicycle lanes, since the community council was never informed of them.
The new lanes didn’t cause too much trouble, however, until a few weeks ago, when members of a church adjacent to a park were warned by police they would be ticketed for parking on the street, since they were blocking the bicycle lanes. With the warm weather bringing many families out to play soccer in the park on Sundays, the church’s parking lot fills up and many church members have nowhere else to park but the street.
“That’s angered a lot of people,” Jarrett says. “Police just showed up and said they were going to start issuing citations. I would think that someone, from some office, some place, could have talked to us about the impact of that decision.”
While the city may have not talked with the Rose Park Community Council about the bike lane problem, they are at least talking about the communication problem—with all 21 of the city’s community councils. Based out of Mayor Ralph Becker’s Salt Lake Solutions initiative, the city is working with community councils to figure out how city government can be a better partner. Whether that means the city gets more involved in community councils through financial assistance or other means is still unknown.
“I can tell you personally, from the interviews that I’ve conducted, there is an incredible variety of opinions across the communities,” says Michele Straube, who is spearheading the project through Salt Lake Solutions. She says that after finishing interviews with council chairs, she expects to start narrowing down ideas in focus groups, to be held in May.
Straube anticipates early ideas might include making the city Website easier to navigate for councils, providing more resources for outreach and more training to ensure councils are compliant with city ordinances. (As recently as the beginning of 2010, only six out of 21 community councils had their paperwork properly updated with the Salt Lake City Recorder’s Office.) Still, she says, it’s early and those are just possible improvements. “The city is not coming up with a proposal. We are going to the community.”
Improving communication between city government and community councils can be difficult, since the neighborhood groups are a strange political entity.
Part nonprofit, part city-regulated and all volunteer-run, community councils get minimal financial assistance from the city, so there’s only so much the city can require of them.
Currently, city officials and the mayor have occasional breakfasts with the community council chairs and have regular contact with staff liaisons who coordinate with the various councils and attend their monthly meetings. According to Jarrett, if the city wants to improve communication and help out community councils, it will take financial resources.
Community councils are required by city ordinance to alert residents about zoning changes and conditional-use permit applications. Jarrett says for a volunteer organization with little resources, getting the word out can be a struggle. He recalls delivering flyers door to door to people whose homes would be affected by the sale of a section of the Rose Park Golf Course(pdf). While the city allocates enough for a monthly newsletter, Jarrett says it doesn’t reach enough people in the community.
“We mail out to 200 or 300 people an agenda with a few bits of info, and those 300 out of a 1,000 people know about things,” he says.
Not all newsletters are created equal. The Greater Avenues Community Council (GACC) has culled enough sponsorships from local businesses and from revenue from the Avenues Street Fair to mail a monthly newsletter to each household in a community of roughly 14,000 residents. GACC Chair Jim Jenkins is proud of the newsletter, but understands it can’t be replicated everywhere and says more city assistance could go a long way.
“That’s certainly something the city is in position to help with,” Jenkins says. “That some of the less well-financed councils would get more help in establishing themselves. One of the greatest challenges for a neighborhood-based organization is developing the awareness and interest amongst constituents.”
Jarrett agrees. “To have an effective line of communication, I think the city should provide some funding. I think you can’t throw money at things and solve problems, but if you have a little money it makes it a lot easier to do that communicating.”
Some community councils would like to see funding move beyond just helping with outreach efforts. At a recent meeting of the East Liberty Park Community Organization, a handful of die-hard community supporters gathered in the basement of a private school, seated awkwardly in children’s chairs to listen to presentations from members of the Tracy Aviary and the Salt Lake City Police Department. Concluding the meeting was a discussion about scraping together money for street-light repairs the city wouldn’t front the cost for. It’s not the only time the subject of infrastructure money has come up, and for council chair Marielle Siraa, it’s an important issue.
“One thing many community councils would like is funding so they can focus on efforts directly affecting the community.” Her council has gone so far as to petition the City Council for Capital Improvement funds to help pay for trees planted in the median along 700 East, as well as money for resurfacing alleys in the area.
The only problem with added financial assistance is what the city gets in return for it, says Christian Harrison, chair of the Downtown Community Council. “Having a budget would be nice, but there are strings attached to that,” Harrison says. Too much financial assistance might hinder the independence of community councils. As independent entities, community councils have more freedom to lobby city interests without having to fret over lobbyist regulations.
“When the city was looking at normalizing downtown alcohol regulations, I sat down with LDS Church representatives for three hours,” Harrison says, adding that he toured the bars on Main Street with the representatives, talking to them about how regulations would affect the businesses. “That never would have happened if we had been this quasi-governmental entity.”
While every community council deals with vastly different issues, they all agree that there’s no simple solution.
“A city is a tapestry of neighborhoods,” says Jenkins of GACC. “Community councils, as a whole, are a tapestry of organizations that are made and put together in very different ways. It’s not like there’s a one-size-all fix that works for everybody.”