Several Birmingham City councilors on Tuesday called for significant changes to the city’s current organization of neighborhood associations.
Discussion over an item setting neighborhood elections for Oct. 18, later passed by the council, veered into a discussion of councilors’ broader dissatisfaction with the system. Most of that centered on low attendance at neighborhood meetings, leading to uncontested elections.
District 5 Councilor Darrell O’Quinn, a former president of the Crestwood North neighborhood, suggested that there were “other ways of devising a system that provides representation and embraces the reality that even though there may be hundreds of residents in a neighborhood, there’s only ever going to be a handful of people who actually engage in neighborhood-level conversations.”
O’Quinn added that many neighborhood leaders are elected almost by default, “determined based on someone going and signing their name on one ballot and (becoming) the president of a neighborhood that represents 100s of people. … We can do better.”
District 2 Councilor Hunter Williams went ever further. “This is not an effective or efficient way of community engagement or community involvement,” he said. “I think that this system is broken, and I think we collectively can change that … . Let’s face it, some neighborhoods can’t even get enough people to sign up for the president, vice president and secretary positions. That’s only three in a neighborhood of a few thousand.
“There’s a lot of those neighborhoods … and I think there’s a way that we can engage those people that want to have an impact in their neighborhood, in their community, and allow them to be leaders in a way that’s more effective than the current system we have set up.”
No councilor proposed an alternative model at Tuesday’s meeting, though Mayor Randall Woodfin suggested amending current protocol to make each meeting “hybrid,” meaning accessible online for residents, such as the infirm or people with children, to virtually attend. “Everybody can’t show up to the actual meeting,” he said.
District 8 Councilor Carol Clarke warned that, if that were to be adopted, the city would have to set “some minimum standards and (allocate) some technical assistance.”
“I’ve seen those (hybrid) meetings be really awful. … I think conference calls are the worst way to have a neighborhood meeting.” She added that she would like to see neighborhoods “do additional outreach,” and there “should be some incentive to improve participation” and to diversify the ages of people involved.
The Citizens’ Advisory Board will soon propose a series of procedural changes regarding neighborhoods to the City Council, O’Quinn added, once they had received feedback from individual neighborhood associations.
“I suspect, just based on past history, that the recommended amendments are going to be very modest,” he said.