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?
- It’s the truth and people should be able to understand the truth about city politics and not selectively chosen myths.
- There is a strong constituency that agrees with policies of the ANC. They should be free to advocate for their preferred policies without interference.
- 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.