Neighborhood Associations are member organizations, not elected representatives

This post is based on my experience with Austin; I don’t know how neighborhood groups in other cities work.

The fact of the title of this post is so glaringly obvious that it feels too insubstantial for a post. Yet it is one of the most overlooked and fundamentally misunderstood facts about local politics.

Neighborhood associations are independent organizations formed for social, political, and educational purposes. Many of them are affiliated with a larger political organization, the Austin Neighborhoods Council, which also engages in social, political, and educational activities. They endorse candidates. They pass resolutions endorsing and opposing initiatives at City Council. They organize members to speak at Boards, Commissions, and Council. They find members and like-minded folks to serve on Commissions and run for Council. They organize volunteers to help with political campaigns. As somebody who is both a member of a NA and intimately involved in the founding of another organization that engages in many of the same activities, I hardly fault them for that. Neither NAs nor AURA are chartered by state government to be municipal governments. They have no requirement to hold secret ballot elections, to allow anybody to participate in their organization without charge, or to represent the residents of the city generally. Nor do they. They are free to advocate for the goals of their organization, no matter how popular those goals are with the people of Austin. And they do. They are free to set rules to limit participation in their organizations so as to ensure that the organization can maintain its vision and goals. And they do. And again, there is absolutely nothing wrong with any of that.

The facts above are, again, so glaringly obvious as to seem too silly to reiterate. And yet, there is a myth about NAs that casts them in an entirely different light–not as membership-based political organizations, with limited membership and representation, but as quasi-political units smaller than the city itself. In this myth, the NA is the sole legitimate representative of the residents of a neighborhood, in much the same way that the city of Austin is the legitimate representative of the people of Austin. This myth manifests itself in many ways. At City Council, if a developer is encouraged to negotiate with “the neighborhood,” this usually means negotiating with the politically-active NA. In news reports, when residents of a neighborhood show up to speak on both sides of an issue, those speaking on behalf of NA are given the title “the neighborhood” or, for example, “Hyde Park,” similarly to how individual residents of Austin do not speak for Austin, but the City Council does.

I think this myth is wrong, and that all parties–politicians, members of NAs, members of other political groups, and most especially news media–should strive to remember the true facts, the title of this post. Why does it matter?

  1. It’s the truth and people should be able to understand the truth about city politics and not selectively chosen myths.
  2. There is a strong constituency that agrees with policies of the ANC. They should be free to advocate for their preferred policies without interference.
  3. There is a strong constituency that disagrees with policies of the ANC. They should be free to have their voice heard without having to join an organization they disagree with.

So, if you are a Councilmember or, especially, a member of the news media, look forward to a lot of hectoring from me in the next couple years if you use the words “the neighborhood” and “the neighborhood association” interchangeably. In fact, given the confusing myriad of uses for the phrase “the neighborhood” (place, residents of that place, members of that place’s “community”, NA, neighborhood contact team), it would probably be better to just drop the vague phrase and be more specific.

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Neighborhood Associations are member organizations, not elected representatives

12 thoughts on “Neighborhood Associations are member organizations, not elected representatives

  1. alan smith says:

    the Hyde Park Neighborhood Association Yahoo listserv has had a lot of recent discussion/debate on the topic – it boiled down to “those that show up get a voice” vs the position you describe. It seems to have even spawned an alternate Hyde Park neighborhood association – I think pressing our “representatives” to take their roles seriously rather than use the fig leaf of neighborhood support and pander to frequent voters is the new challenge.

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    1. I actually think dual organizations is perhaps the healthiest position. Some of the most toxic debate in the city (not speaking of HPNA here) comes from trying to cover up the fact that people do have disagreements, that that’s both inevitable and fine, and that more than one side deserves a hearing.

      So at that point, instead of people complaining about the level of internal democracy in HPNA and whether HPNA is really representative, they can just vote with their feet and join the non-representative organization with the vision they prefer.

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    2. To elaborate a bit more “those that show up get a voice” is a perfectly reasonable (if odd) setup for a membership organization. It is not a set up that is likely to yield a representative voice.

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      1. alan smith says:

        the Hyde Park contact team is where this issue became acute: its bylaws say that it should represent all stakeholders, but the voting profile is mostly the same as HPNA: older, retired, no young children, etc.. The city actually requires the bylaws to contain a “represent all stakeholders” clause, but no one has figured out how to do that in practice.

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      2. Alan, I followed first the HPNA, then the HPNCT’s discussion and decision on 4500 Speedway. It was striking how much more diversity of opinion there was at the NA than the NCT.

        For those who disagree, I do think that forming a second NA (Hyde Park Growth Association?) and lobbying for representation at the NCT would be a better route than trying to influence a body (HPNA) that wasn’t designed to be influenced.

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      3. alan smith says:

        what happens when the CT votes are flooded with NA members who don’t worry about the “represent all stakeholders” clause? The current leadership of the Hyde Park CT is being ousted b/c he added some commentary when reporting a recent vote that indicated he felt the vote might go another way if the meeting had been more representative. I expect they will elect someone who can easily overlook equal representation and just go with “whoever shows up gets represented”. Online voting was too scary (?) for the NA and the CT.

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      4. Well, either 1) the new NA has to get more organized, or 2) use the City Council as their battleground instead of the CT. If the old NA just gets a lot more people to participate in every forum, then at some level decisionmakers will listen to them, representative or not.

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      5. alan smith says:

        yes. maybe if the new NA could demonstrate greater participation through online voting, its voice would carry more weight. Showing up at a 11PM council meeting is pretty hard for people with kids who have to go to work the next morning (those that do show up say “if you cared enough…” – ignoring the fact that they don’t have young children or an early work meeting). I think this is pretty much the situation on a regular basis. Maybe the age-skewed council commentary explains some of the prevailing NIMBY attitude of the city.

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      6. Larry Sunderland says:

        The whole voting thing is dumb,If it is about getting citizen input and providing a range of views to decision makers.

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  2. Larry Sunderland says:

    Trying to find out who is on your neighborhood contact team is a frustrating effort. The city website is useless. They created these entities and there is no oversight. Surprised that some developer has not filed suit against the city.

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