The Amazing and Unstoppable, Bill Collins, Citizen Extraordinaire

The people who participate in Community Councils these days blow me away.  They don’t just plan picnics any more.  These folks educate themselves so that they can help negotiate complicated development deals, lobby elected representatives, and make sure their neighborhood is getting its fair share of media attention.

2008.12.29 Bill Collins color bizcasual (1)Right now Madisonville is especially hot.  The Community Council is smack-dab in the thick of the process – and long-term resident, Bill Collins, is very much involved (along with the remarkable, Luke Brockmeier, president).  Anybody who spends any time on civic social media sites knows Bill.  A former reporter, he’s very well informed and regularly sends me information about the issues in his neck of the woods.

Last week Bill submitted testimony to City Council on a proposed development on Red Bank Rd. but the point he makes about how Cincinnati decides commercial real-estate issues is important for all of us to understand:

The City’s current processes for community input on development and land-use questions are opaque and frustrating for communities.  The processes used by the City today are fundamentally flawed.    They undercut community input, and they favor well-funded developers, many of whom make large campaign contributions to mayoral and City Council candidates.

Public-input processes used by ODOT and CPS  are far superior to the public-input processes used by the City of Cincinnati.  In contrast with our experience with the City of Cincinnati, in recent years, the Madisonville community has had great success when it has engaged in public-involvement processes with other government entities. Here, notably, I am talking about the much more effective community-input process that are used today by the Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT) and the Cincinnati Public Schools  (CPS).

With ODOT, it is federal law  — as enforced by the U.S.  Department of Transportation and the Columbus regional office of the Federal Highway Administration  — that compelled ODOT to listen to communities like Madisonville, Mariemont and Newtown.   By listening to us and our suburban neighbors via a serious and thorough public-engagement process, ODOT finally reached the excellent decision that it did last week on the Eastern Corridor project to keep the Little Miami Valley intact by not relocating State Route 32 through the valley of this priceless State and National Scenic River. 

With CPS, the school board has not been forced to listen to us by any federal law or state law.    However, because the CPS board has developed a smart methodology for what the board calls ‘fact-finding’ meetings  — i.e,, meetings where the full CPS board meets and dialogues with community people at 5PM on weekdays across a conference room table in open meetings — this approach facilitated the exchange of views with us in Madisonville which is leading to what should be an exciting future for our neighborhood CPS public elementary school.

At City Hall today, there is a lot of talk about best practices, bench-marking and public input, but when will the walk match all this talk? If City Hall is serious about supporting communities the City of Cincinnati needs to appoint a special task force of City staff, Council members and neighborhood leaders  to review what agencies like ODOT, the Cincinnati Public Schools, and other more forward-looking public agencies are doing in order to partner more effectively with taxpayers, parents and citizens.   

Through the work of such a task force, the City can develop an improved community-engagement process with a shared goal of smarter development.  We want developers to make healthy profits  by creating new jobs, building better housing and bringing exciting new family-friendly amenities to the City.    Let’s do it!

Thanks, Bill, for all you do for Madisonville and your city.  Not only do your ideas on community engagement make a lot of sense, your generous spirit and bulldog-determination are the essence of good citizenship.

3 thoughts on “The Amazing and Unstoppable, Bill Collins, Citizen Extraordinaire

  1. Bill Collins

    Thanks, Travis.
    The first time I got a glimpse of these flaws in the City of Cincinnati’s planning processes was about 8-9 years ago. That was when a nonprofit organization(which will remain nameless for the sake of my making a point about the City’s processes and not the agency itself) located near us planned a major change.
    [Please note that this agency’s board is comprised of some of the most powerful people in the Tri-State region in the worlds of business and high society. Also this agency has under contract the most powerful legal/lobbying firm in the Tri-State region.]

    This change which this agency sought in 2006-2007 would have (and did) bring a large number of disruptive and sometimes violent children into our neighborhood each day Monday-Friday during the school year. And, of course, this shifting of all these troubled kids from this agency’s former site in Springfield Township into our neighborhood required a larger security detail to protect the neighborhood. Plus, in the neighborhood we knew that bringing this new facility into our neighborhood had the potential to hurt our property values.

    So, as the neighborhood confronted this issue at that time — struggling with the social-service agency and City staff — it became obvious to us how lame the City’s land-use/citizen-input processes were. We came to understand how these processes are — in effect if not in intent — designed to favor well-funded organizations like this one that have the money to employ powerful, well-heeled lawyers and lobbyists.

    At that time 8-9 years ago, only 2-3 households in our neighborhood got official written notification from the City that a “zoning change” was planned as per this project. But the City’s letter provided no details. [At that time Madisonville was filling up with social-service agencies that mostly served people who did not live here. Today things have changed. Now we are attracting a lot more good jobs and quality investment, which is good!]

    Fortunately back in 2006-2007, the word leaked out about this social-service agency’s plans, despite the City’s tight-lipped policy. This “cat got out of the bag” because one of our neighbors who worked for this agency (who has since left the neighborhood, partly out of disgust with this social-service agency) clued us in about the agency’s plans.

    So, we organized the neighborhood to demand that this agency provide more security as it brought 100 of more violent youth into our community. Long story short, it took us several years to get that added security. However even today the security plan is still flawed because it depends too much of off-duty CPD officers working on overtime beyond their regular 40-hour work week.

    IF, at that time 8-9 years ago, (again, the big IF) the City had had a rational process in place that would have communicated clearly (to us) what change this agency was planning to make on its campus, and made it clear (to this large social-service agency) that City rules required it to collaborate with the community, this decision-making process would have proceeded more smoothly. In other words, we in the neighborhood could have negotiated with the agency early on to settle the issues amiably.

    IF an improved City process for such situations had been in place at that time, it would have have encouraged more of a “win/win” collaborative approach rather than the needless contention, the angry meetings and the mutual suspicion that has lingered between most people in our neighborhood and this social-service agency for the last 8-9 years.
    In the meantime, the lobbyists and lawyers employed by this agency have collected their big fees and gone on with their prosperous lives year after year — living as they do in neighborhoods far distant from ours.


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