Local boards, commissions and councils: Don’t talk about it, be about it

You can make a true impact on local boards and commissions and in their corresponding meetings. While no one person typically gets to make a final decision, having multi-faceted representation makes a difference. Let my experience motivate you to Google your city or county's open vacancies for various seats and positions.

On the most recent episode of the LIT Podcast, which I co-host with Tonya Evans, Esq., we talked about access to the rooms and spaces that make a difference. I know this topic deviates a little from my normal law/innovation/internet takes, but this topic permeates across all of these things.

I spent a few minutes during episode 8 of the podcast discussing how to get engaged locally to help shape your community. I also alluded to my recent appointment to the Greenville City Planning Commission in my city–Greenville, South Carolina.

The commission’s job, which we do as unpaid volunteers, is to make recommendations to City Council on zoning and annexation issues; review and approve all new subdivisions; and be involved in comprehensive planning to improve the health and welfare of the public.

Earlier this week, I had a commission experience that makes me even more convinced of the importance of serving on local boards, commissions, and councils. I’d like to recount that experience here to hopefully emphasize and encourage your participation, no matter where you live.

For context: Greenville is a city rapidly on the rise as one of the most vibrant, dynamic, and innovative cities in the South and United States. The downtown is beautiful and more diverse than you might imagine, if you’ve never been here.

As South Carolina natives, my husband and I decided to move back to Greenville after years of living in cities like New Orleans and Atlanta and multiple short stints abroad.

Between the two of us, my husband and I have two STEM-oriented bachelor’s degrees, two law degrees, and a PhD in education. We want to both share with, and learn from, the community where we reside. We want our children to grow up to be productive community citizens, with us as their examples. In these regards, Greenville has not disappointed us yet.

We had lived in the city once before, and after repeatedly seeing Greenville being ranked at the top of many “best” lists, we pondered a return. A relocation would place us in one of the best small cities in the United States, at least according to Conde Nast.

We were impressed by a series of articles from The Atlantic and a PBS News Hour spotlight about the city. As a family with young children, we were especially drawn to an Atlantic article about the AJ Whittenberg Elementary School of Engineering, a high-performing public school named after a resident civil rights icon & physically located in a historically black but rapidly-gentrifying community.

This is Mrs. Elaine Whittenberg-Boyce, who is standing next to a portrait of her father, Abraham Jonas Whittenberg, that hangs inside of A.J. Whittenberg Elementary School.

We wanted to come back to the state of South Carolina, despite its past and sometimes disappointing present, to become part of the present and future we want to see. Even with its many idiosyncrasies and challenges, South Carolina is home. Greenville is home. #yeahthatgreenville

So, back we came. After settling in, I decided to get engaged in our community and searched for where and how.

You often hear people say that “all politics is local,” and that citizens need to participate in local boards, commissions, and councils. I took that to heart and have been honored to serve on the Greenville City Planning Commission, which I started with earlier this year.

A few days ago, we participated in what I’ve been told is the largest redevelopment project in Greenville’s history. The +$1 billion project involves the redevelopment of Greenville County Square and has been called the event that “will define our city.” It has been a hot button topic across the area.

The area is proposed to go from this:

To tentatively something perhaps like this:

If finally approved by the City Council, the project will sit within the historically African-American Haynie-Sirrine neighborhood–one of the first and oldest black communities in the city.

A number of attendees spoke in favor of the project because of the improved aesthetics and positive economic impact to the entire area. The county square area has been twice-renovated, from a private university, to a shopping mall in the 60s, 70s and 80s, to its current usage for county offices. The commenting parties were excited about new development coming into the area.

On the other hand, many of Haynie-Sirrine’s residents, and others who live/work in the surrounding area, spoke about feeling disenfranchised by the entire process. They raised a myriad of concerns, including gentrification, affordable housing, building heights, increased traffic, small business opportunities, and the level, or lack thereof, of community involvement in the overall proposed plan. Tensions ran high throughout the roughly five-hour discussion.

As I tweeted earlier today:

Greenville has actually been better than many others at bipartisan agreement for the greater good of its residents and future. This PBS News Hour segment articulates how the city has been able to move forward even with stark socioeconomic and political differences.

Of course, no city is perfect. You will find Greenvillians who balk at a pie-in-the-sky perspective to the city, and the video briefly explores why. What is factual, however, is that Greenville has become a place that others look to as a standard-bearer for developing and re-branding small-to-mid-sized cities.

The County Square project provides yet another opportunity for Greenville to serve as an example for others looking to create innovative environments for their citizenry. This could be transformative–good or bad–both locally and nationally.

I was one of two commissioners who voted against the approval of the project, though I am not generally opposed to redevelopment. As I mentioned during the +5 hour public meeting, I remain deeply concerned about Greenville repeating the mistakes other cities have made.

In the below exchange, I am asking representatives from Greenville County, which owns the property where the redevelopment project will sit, to explain their decision to provide a $2 million incentive for affordable housing on the $1 billion redevelopment project. In particular, I wanted to understand how the number was calculated, what kinds of specific projects were possible, and whether $2 million actually provided an incentive for a project of this scope, scale and magnitude.

If you watch, you will see that the discussions were . . . spirited.

City Planning Commission discussing affordable housing with Greenville County from CJ on Vimeo.

The spirited nature of these discussions is proportional to the concerns from all sides of the issue.

I have profound respect for the thousands of hours and many of the people who have put blood, sweat and tears into this project. I hope we can put a few more hours in to make sure we get it right for as many of the interested parties as possible.

Greenville’s history shows that it is good at this. And, we could be good at using this project to truly improve the lives of ourselves and our neighbors.

I remain excited about and hopeful for Greenville’s future. I’ve had the opportunity to see the citizens working behind the scenes to keep the gears turning. I’ve also had the opportunity to read the hundreds of comments, and hear in person, from folks on every side of the aisle about why they care so much about the city.

This experience reiterated, for me at least, the true impact that can be made on local boards and commissions and in their corresponding meetings. While no one person typically gets to make a final decision, having multi-faceted representation makes a difference.

Let my experience motivate you to Google your city or county’s open vacancies for various seats and positions. You may find that there’s something that interests you.

If you’ve ever found yourself on the giving or receiving end of the phrase “we need more people to get on boards and commissions and get involved in local politics!,” please get out there and do something about it. It makes a difference.

Shoot me a comment or email and let me know if there are any local boards, commissions or councils you plan to run for/join!

And finally, the podcast episode I mentioned!

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