More than 3,500 Buffalo citizens came out last October and November to join their neighbors in extended conversation about the future of their City -- about what that future ought to be and how to get to it. They attended "Neighborhood Summits" in each of the nine Council districts of the City of Buffalo, co- hosted by Mayor Anthony M. Masiello, the Councilmember from each of those districts, and the Urban Design Project of the State University of New York at Buffalo's School of Architecture and Planning.
There was much discussion about the controversial new user fee for garbage service in the City. But there was even more talk about the basic challenges the City faces -- in fighting crime, preserving housing and neighborhoods, improving education, and creating jobs.
Sometimes the discussions were heated, even confrontational. But more often, City officials and citizens met face to face to talk about the issues, explain their points of view, and hear the others out.
"When I first ran for Mayor," Masiello says, "I promised that I would work to give citizens a larger and more active role in government, and to make City government more open and accountable. The second round of Neighborhood Summits, completed in November 1996, were part of the fulfillment of that process. As we approach the beginning of the next century, Buffalo faces an array of very difficult challenges. We need to make it possible for all of our citizens to feel safe in their homes and on their streets. We need to preserve and revitalize our neighborhoods. We need to find the wherewithal to continue to provide the basic services of government, and especially to educate our children."
The 1996 Summits, and the ones held last December and January, were designed to give as many people as possible a chance to be heard, and to give people several different ways to express their opinions. Citizens were invited to rank priority issues on wall charts; to record comments on the state of their neighborhoods; offered a review of City initiatives by the Mayor and his Commissioners; invited to discuss issues of their choice in small groups, face to face with appropriate City staff; and to ask questions and make comments to all the City officials in open session.
The biggest change from last year's Summits was the use of small group discussions around specific issues such as crime, housing, the user fee, and many others.
The small groups had two purposes. The first was to get focused and more detailed discussions on priority issues. City officials knew from last year's Summits that crime, housing, education and services were important. This year, they wanted to know in more detail what citizens thought of the specific initiatives they were taking.
The second purpose of the small groups was to give more "air time" to each citizen to express his or her opinion. In a large group, only a few people will get a chance to speak during the course of an hour, and some of the groups at the Summits were very large. But in a smaller group -- most were of 10 to 40 people -- everyone can get a chance to be heard. Using eight small groups, in effect, expanded the time citizens had to talk eight-fold. With eight groups working at the same time, the Summits allowed eight hours of discussion to take place in a single hour.
The Summits opened with a ranking of the list of 20 priority issues generated in last year's round of Summits. Everyone got five dots to place on wall charts to indicate what issues they felt were most important. Citizens were also invited to write in issues on the wall charts when their priority issue wasn't already listed. In the Lovejoy district, more than 600 dots were placed on "A New Community Center for Kaisertown." The garbage user fee was a write-in issue in eight of the nine districts.
The opening of the Summits also provided an opportunity for citizens to write comments on wall charts regarding "something in my neighborhood that has gotten better this year," and "something in my neighborhood that has stayed the same (or gotten worse) this year." Another wall chart, with the heading "We Have A Problem," invited citizens to report a specific problem, with information to be forwarded to the appropriate Commissioner and to their Councilmember for action.
The format for each of the Neighborhood Summits was not exactly the same. Efforts were made to tailor the meeting format to the specific needs and circumstances in each Council district, and to each Council Member. The format for Summits held later were also adjusted to take into account experience from the Summits held earlier.
The Neighborhood Summits this year provided a clear ranking of citizen priorities for action by City government. They also produced a highly detailed discussion about a wide range of specific issues. Last year's top priorities -- crime, housing, city services, education and economic development -- were all confirmed by this year's round of Summits.
This does not mean that the 1996 Summits were the last word on citizen priorities. Officials say the civic discussion about what to do will never be over, but they now have a better and more detailed picture about the problems Buffalonians face and what they think should be done to solve them. And this picture has been based on a larger and broader cross-section of citizens than ever before.
Contact: Office of the Mayor, (716) 851-4841
The United States Conference of Mayors
J. Thomas Cochran, Executive Director
Copyright ©1996, U.S. Conference of Mayors, All rights reserved.