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The promise of community-based government

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POSTED January 6, 2010 2:33 a.m.
Envision Manteca with 80,000 residents and a central district that is thriving.

The downtown area is more congested but most people going there don’t mind because they are attracted by the shopping and entertainment plus dining options that include numerous outdoor venues.

However not everyone wants to go downtown. They just want to get around it. Coming from the north or the east, it would make Center Street or North Street the logical candidates for motorists who want to avoid downtown. Both are designed as old-style collector streets.

But a growing number of people are getting savvier. They know if they can turn off North Main Street at Edison Street and head east to Powers Avenue and reconnect with Yosemite or jog on to Alameda to reach Cottage and then Yosemite that they can save about a minute or so of time. Of course, they go through the neighborhoods driving at up to 40 mph.

This doesn’t make residents along the route happy campers. Residents pressure elected leaders and City Hall to do something about the traffic.

A municipal staffer reviews the situation and notes that people don’t like waiting at the North Main Street signals at North Street and Center Street to make a left turn.

City staff suggests a traffic signal at North Main and Edison is the answer along with placing more four-way stops on Edison as well as Powers. The cost is $500,000.

Residents just want their problem addressed so no one objects believing the solution is the right one. Yet after the signals and stop signs go in, no one is any happier. Traffic count hasn’t really dropped and there seems to be even more speeding as people taking short cuts try to hurry up and make up for lost time by stepping on the gas between stop signs.

The city has spent $500,000 and no one in the neighborhood is any happier.

The outcome could be entirely different with community-based government – one that actively engages the front-line municipal workers with the neighborhoods they serve.

In this case it may be a park worker and a refuse worker. Day in and day out they see people cutting through the neighborhood as a short cut. They also see how it can get pretty dangerous near Shasta School and some other points. From their own observations and conversations with residents, they suggest that residents’ concerns could be best addressed with traffic calming devices. Some would narrow intersections and place speed bumps in areas near Shasta School. And to prevent people taking short cuts to simply turn early on to a side street such as Dawn to get around speed bumps, they suggest neighbors on that street might be open to turning one end of that street into a cul-de-sac.

The solution suggested through community-based government may end up costing $100,000 plus being much more effective at addressing the neighbors’ concerns which include both high speed traffic and too many people using their streets as short cuts.

The new approach to how Manteca serves neighbors that is now being mulled over in brainstorming sessions with frontline municipal workers could end up making city government more responsive to the people they serve.

And in doing so, it is likely to reduce the cost of solutions and ultimately the cost of government.

It is similar to what San Jose put in place years ago when leaders were worried that as that city grew – it is now more than a million residents – that City Hall would become more and more disconnected with the true needs of a neighborhood.

Yes, some of the effort might require people to step up with some time.

Consider the areas that routinely flood with the initial rains in the fall or before the end of January when leaves are still a major issue. Rest assured the ears of city workers have been bent more than one time over the perennial flooding caused by clogged storm drains.

The solution could be organizing the neighborhood to help keep storm drains clear as many are in front of homes of elderly residents who have limited ability. The city may kick in extra help by things as simple as dropping off green Toters every so often when storms are expected so the volunteers can place leaves into them so leaves don’t get pushed by runoff or the wind back into the storm drains.

Does this mean the residents are doing the city’s work? Yes and no. Even in good times Manteca lacks the manpower to make sure all storm drains are clear. By working together flooding issues that include people walking and driving through standing water could be addressed before they happen.

Community-based government has a lot of potential. It could make it possible to open a youth/community center in Southside Park to address the influence of gangs. The city would provide the structure plus equipment and the community the manpower through volunteers.

Given the fact 80 percent  of government’s cost is manpower and the fact such solutions serve neighborhoods that those involved have a large stack in, about the only way Manteca can improve the services it provides is by engaging the people that the neighborhoods belong to in the first place.

Community-based government is a step in the right direction.
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