Conversation' takes shape for May 3rd Civic Summit

Council President Maureen Feeney announced speakers for the 2008 Boston Civic Summit this week, a gathering of civic activists on May 3 that she hopes will start a conversation about how to address what many councillors and activists see as waning civic involvement across the city.

A host of indicators, from voter participation, to a lack of competition for city council seats, to the anecdotal fact that councillors have noticed they tend to see the same faces over and over again at civic and neighborhood associations are all down. The summit is designed to, at the very least, draw more attention to the problems that exist and share some best practices among attendees, said Feeney spokesman Justin Holmes.

America has long been associated with robust civic involvement going back to Alexis de Tocqueville's 1831 visit, but Boston's civic associations first became important in the political arena after municipal government reforms in 1909 took the exclusive right to nominate political candidates away from the then-powerful Democratic wards. The same reforms changed the council from a bicameral body with 13 aldermen and 75 common council members into a nine-member city council, all elected at-large.

Boston's strong-mayor form of government also began then, as the mayor gained the power to appoint the heads of and essentially control city departments as well as veto all city council resolutions. Because municipal political candidates now needed hundreds of signatures from citizenry to run for office, civic associations became a useful way to cultivate that support.

Since then, the council has morphed from a one-councillor-per-ward body, back to a nine at-large council, and in 1983 into its present day configuration of four at-large councillors and nine district councillors.

Meanwhile, the city has perennially been involved in an "ethnic ballet," in which many new incoming groups tend to shy away from community involvement outside their own language or cultural group. Dorchester's Vietnamese community for instance, is under- represented on the civic associations that represent the neighborhoods they live in, such as the Fields Corner Civic Association and the Columbia Savin Hill Civic Association. A recent study released by Robert Putnam, author of "Bowling Alone, the Collapse and Revival of American Community," includes data that indicates more diverse neighborhoods tend to have less civic involvement. Tom Sanders, the leader of Putnam's research team on "Bowling Alone," will speak on "the power of encouraging civic engagement in communities" at the upcoming summit.

Another factor could be that "people are just satisfied with the city or the way it is," said former councillor Larry DiCara, "or satisfied enough." Whereas current West Roxbury Councillor John Tobin thinks it might have something to with the fact that the "old 9-to-5 is out the window," and people with families in particular are just too busy. He also cites the $3,000 television sets as a possible factor or the way the daily press characterizes the council as powerless. Others cite the rise of the automobile, and still others the lack of galvanizing issues like those that brought the city alive in the 70s, such as urban renewal, the anti-highway fight or the high crime levels of the mid-90s.

No Boston-focused study, apparently, has been conducted to determine what effect all of this has had on civic participation, or what the true cause of the decline might be, though other cities are moving to address what they see as their own need for more community input. In Portland, Ore. for example, a five-year plan to improve community involvement was passed by the city council last month that includes an effort to establish a Public Involvement Standards Commission that would develop policy proposals. Another part of the plan aims to provide translation and childcare to boost civic involvement. Another has a goal of making public decision-making accountable to community input.

Other speakers announced for the summit Tuesday include Michael Jacoby Brown, author of "Building Powerful Community Organizations;" Ron Bell from Gov. Deval Patrick's administration and Dunk the Vote founder; and Alan Khazei, CEO of Be The Change and co-founder of City Year will be the keynote. In the afternoon session, America Speaks will use an interactive "21st Century Town Hall Meeting" to help identify the major concerns and aspirations of attendees. America Speaks also facilitated large meetings in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and after 9/11 in New York City.

For more on the civic summit, see bostoncivicsummit.org.