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Neighborhood Council Handbook
- Neighborhood Council Achievements
- Purpose of this Handbook
- Establishing a Neighborhood Council
- Building Membership
- Planning a General Membership Meeting
- Conducting a General Membership Meeting
- Available Service and Support
- Organizational Procedures
- Submitting Recommendations
- Participation in the City Budget Preparation Process
- Communication with Membership
- Neighborhood Council Funds
- Neighborhood Council Records
- Inter-Neighborhood Council Committee
In 1973, the Oxnard City Council initiated a new program to involve local citizens in governmental decision-making processes in a more systematic and effective manner. This citizen involvement program, designated the neighborhood council organization, recognized the fact that residents can play a major role in the efforts of Oxnard City Government to meet the community’s municipal service needs. The city council believed the neighborhood council organization could also provide a tool which residents could use in responding directly to those problems and needs, which do not fall within the area of City responsibility or authority.
After reviewing a number of citizen participation programs operating in other communities, the City of Oxnard concluded that a program which encouraged the formation of citizen groups or “Neighborhood Councils”, in each neighborhood, as defined by Oxnard’s General Plan, offered the greatest potential for success.
The selection of this program format recognized that residents are often the most knowledgeable and concerned about the physical and social environment within their own neighborhood. Oxnard’s neighborhood council program takes advantage of this knowledge by providing a mechanism which residents can use to identify problems and unmet municipal service needs within their neighborhood, to evaluate existing City service programs and, when there are deficiencies in these programs, to recommend improvements, and to undertake direct action on neighborhood betterment projects.
By participating in the neighborhood council in their area, residents can help to achieve these objectives and, thereby, improve the quality of life in their neighborhood.
Neighborhood Council Achievements
The neighborhood council program has had some very significant achievements. While listing all of the specific achievements here would be impractical, various neighborhood councils have been active in such areas as: helping to plan neighborhood parks; reviewing and providing input on proposed residential and commercial developments within their area; obtaining improvements to the neighborhood traffic circulation and safety; bringing new City service programs into their area (e.g. Bookmobile, Halloween celebration festivities; upgrading utility systems (e.g. streets, storm drainage channels); disseminating valuable information on crime and fire prevention; and many other areas of concern to neighborhood residents. Additionally, neighborhood councils have joined together to work cooperatively on such community-wide matters as the development of Oxnard College and the revision of the City’s General Plan. Despite these very significant achievements, it is felt by many that the neighborhood council organization offers an even greater potential for positive change within the Oxnard community.
Purpose of this Handbook
The purpose of this handbook is to assist participants, especially newly elected executive board members, in achieving the maximum potential of their neighborhood councils. The information and suggestions presented here reflect some early experiences with the program; it is anticipated that the handbook will undergo periodic revisions as we better understand which procedures and techniques “work” in building stronger neighborhood council programs, and which do not. Any suggestions which participants may have on changes or additions which should be made in this handbook are encouraged and appreciated.
Establishing a Neighborhood Council
The City Council has adopted a resolution which establishes a neighborhood council in each neighborhood unit as depicted in the Oxnard General Plan. A neighborhood council may transact business as soon as completed membership forms from 20 eligible participants (neighborhood residents or property owners at least 18 years of age) have been certified by the Inter-Neighborhood Council (INCC), and have been submitted and recognized by the city Council.
During the first neighborhood council meeting, participants, in addition to approving the organizations by-laws, select an “interim” Formation Board to serve for a maximum of three months. The primary responsibility of this Interim Formation Board is to undertake the basic organizational work necessary to provide a good foundation for their particular neighborhood council, and to plan the general membership meeting at which a “permanent” executive board will be elected.
One of the important organizational tasks of an Interim Formation Board is to build a broad membership base for its neighborhood council. This is a task which will also face subsequent executive boards during the first several years of their neighborhood council’s operations.
It is recognized that the effectiveness of a neighborhood council will not require all, or even a majority of neighborhood residents to become actively involved in the program. Rather, it is anticipated that a relatively small percentage of the residents of the neighborhood will sustain their neighborhood council program.
Nonetheless, a real effort should be made to encourage as many neighborhood residents as possible to become members. A large active membership will help to assure that the decisions reached by the neighborhood council reflect the broad variety of interests and concerns which normally exist in each neighborhood. A large membership will increase the likelihood for creative solutions to neighborhood problems, as many individuals with diverse skills and points of view might “brainstorm” issues at general membership meetings. A large membership will also enable the executive board to “spread the work” of the neighborhood council so that it does not fall upon just a few individuals.
It may be desirable to assign the responsibility for recruiting new members to one member of the executive board, perhaps the vice-chairperson or member-at-large. This individual can coordinate an ongoing effort to build membership. A number of techniques can be used in this effort. Inviting every individual attending a neighborhood council meeting who is not yet a member to complete a membership form is one technique. Another is taking a supply of membership forms along when meeting notices are delivered door-to-door and inviting each interested resident to complete a form at the time this personal contact is being made. In this way, the neighborhood council representative can answer questions about the program and explain the benefits of membership.
Another technique is to appoint a “block membership captain” on each street within the neighborhood and ask them, through their personal contacts, to enlist as many new members as possible. Another method to identify individuals who might wish to become active participants in the neighborhood council is to review the minutes of City Council and Land Use Advisor’s meetings and note if any person residing in the neighborhood has spoken to these bodies on pending issues. The minutes usually provide the street addresses of these speakers, and a neighborhood council representative can contact them and invite them to become a member if they do not already belong. These are just a few membership building techniques which might be used. Individual neighborhood councils will undoubtedly be developing many others which are similar or more effective.
Planning A General Membership Meeting
The success of each general membership meeting often depends upon the time and effort spent by the executive board in preparation. Since most neighborhood councils do not meet on a regular schedule, the first decision to be made is when a meeting should be held. This decision should be made by a majority of executive board members at a meeting held for this purpose, rather than by the chairperson alone. General membership meetings are frequently held to discuss a pending matter which may be of concern to neighborhood residents (for example, a proposed shopping center or residential development), or a problem in the neighborhood (for example, an upcoming school bond election, presentation on future development plans for the area, etc.).
In each case, a decision to hold a meeting should be made at the executive board level. This procedure helps to assure that matters of importance will be brought before neighborhood council members and, at the same time, that unnecessary meetings will be avoided.
Once a decision is made to hold a meeting, several steps should be undertaken. First, a reservation should be made at the school or other facility where the meeting is to be held (the Community Relations Office can aid you in reserving rooms at the schools or in the community facilities). In cases where guest speakers will be asked to participate in the meeting, they should be invited to attend at this stage of the planning.
The next step is to develop a written meeting notice which includes the agenda (items to be discussed) for the meeting. Once completed, the meeting notice can be taken to the Community Relations Office where it will be typed and reproduced in sufficient volume to provide each individual on that neighborhood council a copy. Volunteers will “hand deliver” meeting notices to all neighborhood council households. Some neighborhood councils divide this hand delivery task among executive board members, others ask youngsters to deliver the notices, while others have identified a “block captain” on each street to deliver a portion of the notices. Regardless of what method is used, all notices should be delivered a few days before the meeting.
On the night of meeting, executive board members should plan to arrive early to greet those who attend, and should bring any materials (for example, maps) which will be needed during the discussions to be held at the meeting. Some neighborhood councils provide coffee and other refreshments at general membership meetings.
Conducting A General Membership Meeting
Prior to the start of a general membership meeting, the secretary should confirm that a quorum is present (11 members including a majority of the executive board). After the presence of a quorum is confirmed, the chairperson normally asks the secretary to read the minutes of the last meeting (the minutes of every meeting should be maintained as part of the neighborhood council’s permanent records).
The next portion of the meeting is usually devoted to presentations by guest speakers if any have been invited.
Reports from the neighborhood council standing or ad hoc committees usually come next, followed by “old” and “new” business (items which members may wish to discuss). Following these items, the meeting is adjourned.
The City resolution establishing the organization states that neighborhood council meetings should be conducted according to “Roberts Rules of Order.” Most neighborhood councils have found that following these guidelines helps to assure a productive and orderly meeting without limiting spirited discussion and debate. Regardless of how precisely Roberts Rules are followed, the Chairperson should make every effort to confine the discussion to the subject at hand, giving all points of view a reasonable opportunity for expression, and attempt to reach some definitive conclusion which reflects the consensus of those present. A general knowledge of Roberts Rules can often help the chairperson in achieving these objectives.
Available Service and Support
The direct staff support comes from one part-time coordinator and one part-time clerical staff member, from the Neighborhood Services Office. In addition to this direct staff support, members of the City’s programs (for example, Police, Community Development, Parks, Recreation, Fire, etc.) frequently provide requested information and participate in neighborhood council meetings when invited to do so.
The assistance of the Neighborhood Council Coordinator assigned to the program is devoted to two primary areas. One area is to assist the Inter-Neighborhood Council Committee (INCC) in helping newly formed neighborhood councils establish the organizational foundation necessary for a good program. This typically includes helping to organize the first general membership meeting or two, meeting with the executive board to develop objectives for the neighborhood council, explaining the City’s various decision making processes, and providing other information and support which might help the neighborhood council off to a good start.
The other major area of involvement is to further strengthen the overall neighborhood council program. This effort includes working closely with the INCC in identifying possible program improvements and developing neighborhood procedures which better accommodate the involvement of neighborhood councils in the decision making process. A Planning staff member may assist in both of the above areas and can also serve as the primary resource person to neighborhood councils on short and long-range planning issues. The Planning & Environmental Services Program also mails Land Use Advisor Agendas, minutes and written notification to each neighborhood council when a proposed development is coming before the Land Use advisor’s. The clerical staff member in the Neighborhood Services Office who devotes time to the neighborhood council program, types and mails meeting notices, distributes City Council agendas and minutes to each council, maintains neighborhood council files, and provides numerous other clerical tasks which support the program.
Although staff is anxious to assist individual neighborhood councils in any way possible, the primary initiative for each neighborhood council program best comes from the participants themselves. A major objective of the neighborhood council program is to assist local citizens to develop the capability to identify neighborhood needs, obtain and evaluate confirmations relating to these needs, and seek an effective response to these needs through direct initiative or through appropriate recommendations to the City and other organizations. Experience with the neighborhood council program shows that this objective can be achieved when participants become actively involved in each of these areas.
In keeping with this approach, neighborhood council members desiring information or service are encouraged to contact the appropriate City representative directly, rather than communicating through the Neighborhood Services Office. In addition to your “Guide To The City Government Of Oxnard”, a “City Staff Resources” list is provided to assist neighborhood council participants determine which program representative should be called on various matters. This list provides the name and telephone number of key persons, and explains the types of issues or requests which should be directed to them. In instances where neighborhood council members are unsure as to which City program/person or other agency should be contacted about a particular matter, they are encouraged to contact the Neighborhood Services Office for assistance.
During the early operation of the neighborhood council program, it became evident that relatively few members of each council were undertaking the majority of the work which must be done. This is, of course, similar to the experiences of many other organizations. One method which has been used effectively in easing the work load of the executive board is the development of a committee structure within the council. Permanent, “standing” committees are established to study matters which are likely to be of long-term interest to the neighborhood (such as, land use planning, traffic safety, neighborhood beautification, code enforcement). Ad hoc committees can be used to study those issues which are more short-term in nature.
The use of such committees allows executive board members to devote more time to their primary responsibility, namely, to develop and guide the overall neighborhood council program. Such committees, which are established by the chairperson with the consent of fellow executive board members, normally submit their findings and recommendations first to the executive board, and then to the general membership for consideration. Recommendations formulated by committees and approved by the general membership usually provide the basis for communications with the City and other organizations.
In meeting its responsibilities, neighborhood councils frequently adopt “recommendations” or “positions” on various issues for presentations to the City or other groups. The nature of these recommendations and positions will determine to whom they are submitted. Communications regarding needed City services (e.g. street sweeping, refuse collection, parkway tree trimming) are normally sent directly to the appropriate City Program/Person, rather than to the City Council (a copy of all such communications should be sent to the Neighborhood Services Office.) This approach has worked to the advantage of the neighborhood council, City Staff, and City Council in “non-policy” matters. Communications on policy matters which require a decision beyond the authority of City Staff can be forwarded directly to the City Council, who, after receiving a staff report on such a matter, will take the responding action which it feels appropriate.
Examples of such “policy matters” would be a request for the expenditure of funds for some project or program not included in the current City budget, or a recommendation on a residential, commercial or industrial development which is being considered by the City. Communications on issues similar to the previous example (e.g. land use items) are usually first submitted to the Land Use Advisors for consideration.
Staff assigned to the neighborhood council program can always be consulted when a neighborhood council is unsure as to whom its recommendation or position on a certain issue should be directed. Neighborhood council recommendations are normally adopted at general membership meetings through formal voting procedures. However, the resolution establishing the neighborhood council organization permits the adoption of recommendations by the executive board if there is insufficient time to schedule a general membership meeting. In such cases, the executive board must inform the person or body to which recommendation is submitted that is has not been adopted by the general membership. Neighborhood council recommendations and requests are most effective if they provide supporting objective data. In most cases, the staff, Land Use Advisors or City Council member receiving these recommendations will be more interested in the factual arguments which support the neighborhood council’s position, rather than a simple expression that the neighborhood is “for” or “against” a certain action without providing further information.
The presentation of objective arguments will not guarantee that the neighborhood council’s desires will always prevail, since other factors must also be considered (e.g. financial implications, community-wide impact). However, such a presentation will assure that the interests of the neighborhood are considered in the overall decision. There may be some occasions when an executive board member, or other neighborhood council participant, may present his or her personal views of the City Council, Land Use Advisors, or other public or private body. In all such cases, the individual should make it clear that he or she is speaking only as an individual, and is not representing a neighborhood council position. This precaution is necessary if the integrity of the program is to be maintained.
Participation In The City Budget Preparation Process
Although neighborhood councils are encouraged to communicate neighborhood problems/needs to the City any time they may arise, a special effort has been made to link this “needs assessment” process to preparation of the annual city budget. This effort is desirable since the annual budget is the tool used by City Government to allocate anticipated revenues to specific programs and projects.
Therefore, if a neighborhood council identifies a neighborhood need for a particular project or program, it is desirable to communicate that need to the City in a manner which assures consideration during the budget preparation process. Informal material explaining the budget preparation process and schedule is distributed to neighborhood councils each year to assist them in this undertaking. In addition, City Manager’s staff provides budget presentations to the INCC during the preparation of the annual budget.
Communication With Membership
One of the most challenging tasks facing each neighborhood council is that of establishing communication between the executive board and general membership. This is important since the executive board regularly receives a great deal of information which is probably of interest to other neighborhood council members.
One method of sharing such information is to hold general membership meetings. However, some neighborhood councils have found that it is desirable to limit general membership meetings to those occasions when a major issue must be discussed, or an important informational presentation made, rather than to hold such meetings for the primary purpose of disseminating more routine information. Neighborhood councils have also used other methods of disseminating this type of information (e.g. status of City projects to be undertaken in the neighborhood, upcoming neighborhood issues to be considered by the Land Use Advisors or City Council). Some neighborhood councils have appointed a “Block Captain” on each street to serve as a communications link between the executive board and the neighborhood council members who reside on their street. Other neighborhood councils have distributed periodic newsletters to their members as a means of keeping them up-to-date on matters of interest. Whatever technique is used, maintaining effective communications between the executive board and general membership is necessary for the success of each neighborhood council.
Neighborhood Council Funds
Although the City provides some staff and material support to the program, most neighborhood councils have found it desirable to generate additional funds to support their activities. Some have achieved this objective through special fund-raising projects (e.g. neighborhood picnic, garage sale, etc.), others by levying nominal dues as permitted by the resolution establishing the program.
Neighborhood councils which generate their own funds should develop specific procedures for maintaining and spending them. Such procedures might reasonably require that the funds be placed in a checking or savings account, that the signatures of at least two executive board members be required for withdrawing funds, that regular reports on income and expenditures be provided by the Treasurer, and that the disbursement of all funds (or at least above a certain nominal amount) be specifically authorized by the general membership during a regular meeting. The adoption of these, or similar control procedures, is in the best interests of the neighborhood council, especially executive board members since they are directly responsible for all neighborhood council funds.
Neighborhood Council Records
The experience of neighborhood councils has demonstrated the value of a good records maintenance program. Although records of past decisions, issues, and activities are valuable to any organization, they are especially important to groups, such as neighborhood councils, which tend to have a rather high turnover in membership and leadership.
The availability of complete and up-to-date records is very helpful to new executive board members as they attempt to familiarize themselves with past areas of interest and effort of their neighborhood council. In the absence of such records, the executive board and general membership of some neighborhood councils have found it necessary to re-study problems and issues which have been dealt with earlier by members who are no longer active in the organization. The existence of records can help to avoid this duplication of effort.
An effective records inventory would normally include:
- A neighborhood council roster and completed membership forms
- Minutes of all meetings
- Financial reports
- Copies of those City Council/Planning Commission minutes which make reference to matters within the neighborhood
- Copies of all correspondence received or generated by the neighborhood council
- Committee reports
- Other material which might be of value
Inter-Neighborhood Council Committee
The INCC, composed of all council chairpersons or their designated representatives, has accepted responsibility for monitoring and directing the continued development of the neighborhood council program. In pursuing this objective, the INCC meets on a periodic basis to discuss that specific changes should be made to improve and strengthen the program. Such changes may be in the area of by-law amendments, additional assistance from City staff in various areas, greater coordination and cooperation among individual neighborhood councils, or any other change which might benefit the overall program.
The INCC also serves as a forum for the exchange of information, ideas, and problems/issues resolving techniques. INCC meetings are planned and conducted by officers elected by its members. The Neighborhood Services Office provides secretarial, administrative and other supporting services required by the INCC.
This handbook has touched upon some of the areas which are likely to be of interest and concern to neighborhood council participants, especially newly elected executive board members. Because of the broad scope and complex nature of the neighborhood council program, it is not practical to include all of the information and suggestions which might be of some assistance to participants.
However, it is anticipated that this handbook will be further expanded in the future to reflect the valuable experience and insights of those who have participated in the program.
For further information: