There Goes the Neighborhood

Have neighborhood associations lost their political muscle?

Last month, Yolanda Herrera tried to organize a citywide workshop for neighborhood associations to learn more about the liquor license application process.

Herrera, president of the Sunnyside Neighborhood Association, has frequently opposed new liquor licenses in southside Tucson, so she thought other neighborhoods might benefit from her experience. She worked with a social service agency to reserve meeting space and got various city and state officials to agree to come by.

Once all that was done, she dropped off a pile of fliers at the city's Department of Neighborhood Resources more than a month before the event--but the city staff didn't end up sending it out until weeks later. The invitations arrived in mailboxes just four days before the get-together.

Had she known city officials would just sit on the flier, Herrera says she would have found other funds to mail it out. As it was, the shout-out was sent too late for many people to set aside time to attend the training session.

Herrera says that's just one example of the way city officials have quietly pushed neighborhood issues aside.

"Long story short, they are no longer neighborhood friendly," says Herrera. "They're selling us out to the business people."

It's an increasing complaint about the Department of Neighborhood Resources, or DNR--which some activists have taken to calling "Do Not Resuscitate."

"We're paying this huge part of the budget for DNR, but the services are not coming down to the neighborhoods," Herrera gripes.

She sees the impact on her southside neighborhood as banks are replaced by payday loans outlets and traveling vendors set up shop in empty lots. "It's starting to look like Nogales down here," she says.

Although City Council members talk about supporting neighborhoods when they campaign, they don't always open their doors once they're in office, according to some neighborhood activists.

Brad Holland, a lawyer and musician who serves as president of the Midtown Neighborhood Association, says he's seen a definite shift since Ward 6 Councilman Fred Ronstadt and Mayor Bob Walkup arrived at City Hall.

Holland says the midtown neighborhood, which is bordered by Swan Road, Speedway Boulevard, Alvernon Way and Grant Road, has problems that are serious enough that city officials don't completely ignore them.

But Holland sees money that could be reinvested in neighborhoods, such as the Ward 6 Back to Basics dollars, instead being spent on downtown projects.

"We have some real needs in midtown," he says. "We have meth monsters; we have drainage issues; we have slumlords; we have crime; we have 22 registered Level 3 sex offenders within the square mile of midtown. There's a lot of things we could have down with $800,000 in regards to quality-of-life issues."

While he can call Ward 6 staffers, Holland complains that he doesn't have access to Ronstadt or Walkup. "There's a difference for us as far as the mayor's office is concerned," says Holland, who is supporting Democrat Tom Volgy's effort to unseat Walkup in this year's mayoral race. "We can't even get in the door."

Valerie Greenhill, communications director with Walkup's re-election campaign, says Walkup's office has no record of Holland requesting any meetings.

"The mayor is accessible to all neighborhoods," says Greenhill. "He's always available to meet with constituents. It's interesting that these claims are coming up in the middle of the campaign season."

Greenhill says Walkup has supported neighborhoods through a variety of programs and "is absolutely committed to improving the Department of Neighborhood Resources."

In Ward 3, Councilwoman Kathleen Dunbar, who was fiercely opposed by neighborhood associations when she ran for office two years ago, has worked vigorously to neutralize neighborhood unrest. She turned down Walkup's request to redirect her Back to Basics dollars to downtown, choosing to spread them around the ward instead, and has assigned staffer Bennett Bernal to handle constituent service.

Dunbar healed some wounds with neighborhood leaders along Mountain Avenue earlier this year when she backed their opposition to a controversial public art project. She's recently been trying to address development and parking issues around the UA and has given meeting space to Campbell Avenue merchants who were incensed at her for her support of a grade-separated intersection at Grant and Campbell.

But other parts of Ward 3 still feel neglected. Jerry Anderson, a Democrat who stepped down two years ago after one term as Ward 3 councilman, says that new city restrictions and a decline in available resources have hurt neighborhood organization efforts. In his work with a group called Ward 3 Neighbors, he's seen the city limit the ability of the group to host or promote political forums.

"All in all, it's been a challenging time for neighborhoods to really provide a service to the residents of their neighbors that straddles the fine line between politics and community service," says Anderson, who is also supporting Volgy in the mayor's race. "The city seems to have taken a very stance about telling neighborhoods about what they can do and what they can't do. I don't think that's neighborhood-friendly at all. And I'm confident that's going to change in November."

Neighborhood associations have certainly lost the ability to work together to dramatically affect larger community issues, as they did in the early '90s when they pressured the Pima County Board of Supervisors to turn down legendary land speculator Don Diamond's massive rezoning of Rocking K Ranch. (Diamond would later persuade the board to a pass a less-intensive rezoning.)

The big mover and shaker in that struggle was the Neighborhood Coalition of Greater Tucson, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. But the aging organization has been overshadowed by the rise of other political machines, such as the Pima County Interfaith Council.

Sharon Chadwick, a longtime leader with the Neighborhood Coalition of Greater Tucson who introduced candidates at a coalition-sponsored debate in June, didn't return numerous phone calls to discuss the organization.

Part of the reason that neighborhood power has waned is the basic reactionary nature of neighborhood associations, says Paul Mackey, a local political activist who has studied and worked with the groups, most recently as a liason to a UA campus planning process.

Mackey, who calls the Neighborhood Coalition of Greater Tucson a "relic organization," says that associations generally form when neighborhood residents recognize a problem in their neighborhoods. Once the problem is resolved, many neighbors get back to their lives outside of politics.

In some cases, council offices have been able to neutralize potential uprisings by finding money, through Back to Basics and other programs, to take care of some neighborhood needs, such as installing sidewalks, streetlights or speed humps to slow traffic on residential streets.

If neighborhood associations have much political weight left, it's in city primaries. Democrats who can grab the neighborhood-friendly label tend to come out ahead: Jerry Anderson worked that constituency to upset Michael Crawford in 1997, Molly McKasson won the 1999 mayoral primary and Paula Aboud channeled it to beat Vicki Hart in 2001.

But when they face Republican opponents in the general election, those Democratic candidates have ended up losing in recent years, despite the 3-2 voter registration edge of Democrats in Tucson.

There are more factors at work than just neighborhood support in those losing campaigns; McKasson was hobbled in her race against Walkup by her support of an unpopular CAP water initiative, while Aboud was a rookie politician up against Dunbar, who had both name recognition and campaign experience from her one term in the Arizona House of Representatives. Both Republicans also benefited from independent campaigns that hammered the Democrats.

Nevertheless, whatever the reasons for the Democratic defeats, the end result has been a council that is less responsive to neighborhood activists.

The neighborhood's win streak in Democratic primaries could come to an end next week, if Lianda Ludwig fails in her bid to knock out Ward 2 Councilwoman Carol West. Ludwig, who has bagged the endorsement of the Neighborhood Coalition of Greater Tucson, has played to neighborhood issues, such as a fight over the future of Case Natural Resources Park and the big-box Target store at Harrison Road and Old Spanish Trail. (See "Analyze This," Page 17.)

West, who defends her record on neighborhood issues, says she didn't expect to win the endorsement of the Neighborhood Coalition. "I wasn't surprised at all," she says. "They have their own agenda."

But increasingly, it seems, it's an agenda that neighborhood activists can't implement.

Holland optimistically predicts change is on the horizon. Many residents are organizing, particularly via e-mail.

"There is a heightened neighborhood response," Holland says. "I'd say it is an adversarial response. The neighborhood response is not, 'Let's get together and work with Fred and the mayor and Kathleen and Carol.' The discussion is 'How do we respond to the threat of Fred and the mayor and Kathleen and Carol?'"

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