Valley citizens drive new community problem-solving project

One expert says plans succeed best when regular people take the reins in tackling the issues that matter to them.

cmsewell@idahostatesman.comMay 17, 2009 

Seventeen years ago some 400 Boise politicians, professionals and citizens spent two years developing a 370-page plan with 216 recommendations.

Marilyn Shuler chaired the community committee of Boise Vision, an effort to chart a 20-year course for the city. She remembers the initial meetings, the early enthusiasm. But when then-Mayor Dirk Kempthorne left office shortly after the plan was published, it fell off the radar.

Today, Shuler has higher hopes for Vision for the Valley, a project to preserve and improve the region's quality of life.

"It has a different feel about it," she said. "It is really quite practical. Some of the goals we think we can accomplish soon," said Shuler, who serves on the new endeavor's community committee.

Vision for the Valley started as an editorial-page project of the Idaho Statesman but has been handed off to about 80 TreasureValley political, business and community members who formed a steering committee and 10 subcommittees addressing the economy, transportation, culture, environment and neighborhoods, and other topics.

For the first time, such a grass-roots project has embraced both Ada and Canyon counties, inviting people to explore new avenues of cooperation and craft a regional strategic plan.

Such grass-roots efforts can get results. In 2000, city leaders and a citizens group joined forces to preserve open space in the Foothills. The Boise Foothills levy - a two-year, $10 million property tax levy - received about 60 percent voter approval.

But community "visions" also can be fickle undertakings.

In Houston, a citizen-led initiative to get the city to create a long-range plan to guide the region's growth and development is stalled because it cannot get buy-in from the mayor. The nation's fourth-largest city does not have a comprehensive plan. Even though its citizens have been clamoring for one, for the last six years the mayor has not put it on the agenda, said David Crossley, Blueprint Houston co-founder. "It is a popular idea É but there you go."

Sometimes such efforts can yield surprising results. Citizens and local government had been feuding for years in Lee's Summit, Mo., but a joint planning effort turned the town around. Now it is a national model for community collaboration.

The Vision for the Valley project, at least one national expert says, is off to a good start because it reflects an emerging new model of community democracy that reinvents the traditional relationship between government and citizens. In this model, communities themselves assume a greater responsibility for solving their own problems instead of relying on the government, according to Derek Okubo, with the Denver-based National Civic League. Local government shares the problem-solving agenda with citizens, businesses and nonprofit organizations.

This sea change comes from the realization that collaboration not only works, it is essential.

"The problems are so complex it cannot be government alone or business alone, or the community alone. It has to be a combination," Okubo said.

Cynthia Sewell: 377-6428

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