A plan to encourage constructive citizen participation to better N.J. towns | Opinion

By Star-Ledger Guest Columnist
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on July 25, 2015

The Perth Amboy Civic Trust's education committee meets to discuss a student code of conduct proposal for the town's schools.


By Harry Pozycki

It isn't surprising that people with talent and leadership ability are thinking twice about careers in politics and government, turned-off by the finger-pointing and partisan gridlock that contribute to the shear difficulty of getting anything constructive done.

That is why The Citizens Campaign has constructed an alternative to today's dysfunctional politics, one that provides a safe civic space welcoming citizens who want to improve their city or hometown free of negativity and political wrangling.

Our new civic trustee initiative – which has already achieved impressive results in its pilot cities of Trenton and Perth Amboy – invites people selected as trustees for their leadership ability and commitment to "leave their city better than they found it" together to form a robust 21st century model of civic empowerment . We are calling this initiative a "civic trust."

Civic trustees work together to develop solutions that are (1) cost-effective, (2) evidence-based and (3) beneficial to the city as a whole. And they must be advanced with The Citizens Campaign's proven "no blame" approach. Trustees volunteer to make a commitment of at least one year and their responsibilities also include governing their civic trust, including prioritizing their own issues and recruiting new trustees so the trust continues to thrive well into the future.

Civic trustees receive significant support from The Citizens Campaign's top government lawyers, urban policy experts and experienced political coaches. The Citizens Campaign Law and Policy Task Force assists by providing the legal drafting assistance needed to turn solutions identified by trustees into ready-to-adopt legal form. Training in how to research solutions and how to use the power levers of local government to get results is provided as well.

So far, this new model is meeting and exceeding our expectations in its initial real world tests.

Trenton civic trustees are working closely with the city's police director to develop an Urban Auxiliary Police Force that will draw on trained and committed volunteers who reside in the city to serve as a vital link between the police and the community. They are also working to ensure that the city is better prepared for storm damage caused by increased flooding. Trustees have already secured the first step towards this goal, winning the adoption of an innovative planning board resolution that moves cost-effective flood and storm water protection to the center of city infrastructure planning.

In Perth Amboy, trustees are working to improve the high school graduation rate by developing a community-based approach to school discipline. And after identifying environmental issues as one of their top priorities, civic trustees have created a "Green Team" which won $500,000 of grant funding from the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection for green initiatives.

Our civic trustee initiative seizes on the opportunities for a more powerful role for citizens – one that goes beyond simply reacting to the actions of elected officials. This role stems from the information now available online about solutions that are working in other cities throughout the nation, as well as the detailed data and statistics about local budgets, crime, educational performance and existing ordinances needed to craft practical, cost-effective proposals. Until recently, this kind of information, which gives regular citizens the potential to play an active policy-making role, was the exclusive province of elected officials or well-funded special interest groups.

Over time, we believe that the emphasis on evidence-based solutions provided by civic trustees can trigger a consequential political culture change, generating a competition for solutions in the broader body politic – as opposed to the current blame game. Civic trustees provide a promising new source of leaders who can go on to serve the community in many capacities.

Encouraged by the interest and success achieved in our pilot cities, The Citizens Campaign recently launched a civic trustee initiative in Newark with nearly 30 trustees already selected. In the fall, we will give all New Jerseyans the opportunity to take the civic challenge by making the civic pledge and becoming a civic trustee working to improve their hometown.

Harry Pozycki is the founder and chair of The Citizens Campaign, a community of problem solvers dedicated to empowering citizens with an evidence-based, no-blame approach to getting results without depending on the political establishment.

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