December 2006 Highlights

In December, the City Council approved a stronger approach to cleaning up illegal roadside signs.  We also created a new staff position to help small businesses deal with city programs and permits, and the first stage of a new, more efficient way for citizens to access city service assistance and information. 

Cleaning up illegal roadside signs:     I've been working on the problem of illegal signs posted on utility poles or planted in medians or at intersections for some time.  These unsightly intrusions into our neighborhoods—I call them "litter on a stick"—are routinely posted by those who know they are breaking city law, but also know that they can get away with it.  For years, the city has done nothing more than periodically take them down, and as a result the problem has expanded.  On December 18, we gave final approval to a change in our sign ordinance that should finally put some practical teeth into the rules.  The new enforcement option, effective now, allows city staff to assess a civil penalty (fine) against the businesses which the signs are intended to benefit.  The fine is $50 per sign, per day that the sign remains up.  Before, the only other enforcement option was to catch the poster in the act (extremely rare) and cite him/her for a criminal code violation.  (It was never used.)  I look forward to seeing city staff use the new civil penalty authority against some of the repeat blatant violators.  That should finally create a disincentive to violations of the law—and help to keep our streets cleaner and more attractive.

Small business liason:     Small business owners often express concern about the difficulties of navigating government regulations, and accessing public services.  In our complex society, that is a very reasonable concern.  To help, the City Council this month approved creation of a new staff position to help small businesses deal with city departments from Inspections to Utilities.  Duties of the position will include, for example, helping with city permitting processes, utility hookups, and zoning questions.  The job is not to circumvent rules, but to help educate and streamline.  The cost of the position will be covered by a combination of savings from eliminating a budgeted but unfilled clerk position, and a private grant.  This new position ought to be in operation in early 2007. 

Citizen Contact Center:     Other city residents also report frustrations with knowing where to call for help within city government, and sometimes with promises of response which are made, then apparently mislaid.  The issue might be a missed trash pickup, a pothole, litter on an uncleaned lot, or some similar item.  One way to address these problems is to set up a central contact line and tracking process for citizen information and service requests.  Such a "Citizen Contact Center" employs call-takers who are trained to answer most city information questions; and who can take service requests, route them to the appropriate department, and track the response electronically.  I have previously recommended this idea.

The City Council in December approved the City Manager's plan to initiate this approach.  Plans call for the Center to be in operation by July.  I'll report back when the service is ready to go. 

Utilities Commission:     There has been much attention in the media this year to how the City/County Utilities Commission makes decisions and oversees operation of the city/county water, sewer, and solid waste services.  In response to questions of whether elected officials are exercising proper oversight of these activities, the City Council in December approved a plan to add one member each of the City Council and County Commission as voting members of the Utilities Commission.  These direct representatives of the elected boards would serve as liasons to keep their colleagues advised on an ongoing basis of how well policy decisions are being implemented.  (Of course, all the other members of the Utilities Commission are already jointly appointed by the two elected boards anyway.)  The County Commissioners are expected to act on the proposal soon.

National League of Cities Annual Conference:     Finally this month, I'm pleased to report on my participation in the National League of Cities (NLC) annual conference.  I spent most of the first week in December taking part as one of Winston-Salem's representatives to the NLC's annual conference, which was held this year in Reno, Nevada.  The location of the meeting rotates around the nation, for convenience to the member cities from 48 states.  Last year, the conference was in Charlotte, clearly a far more convenient destination for us—but this year, it was the east coast's turn to have to travel.

     Highlights of my participation this year included the following:

  • Taking part in an enlightening workshop on stormwater management strategies. Useful approaches discussed by panelists from the EPA and other cities included disconnecting areas of paved surface, distributing smaller controls around the development site instead of concentrating everything into a single large retention pond, and employing attractive and functional techniques such as vegetated "rain gardens".
  • Participating in another useful workshop on strategies for combating childhood obesity.  Cities from states including Nebraska and California shared successful approaches they're using to make their communities more walkable, increase youth participation in active recreation, and partner with their local schools to make efficient use of all our resources.
  • Participating in decision-making by NLC's Energy, Environment, and Natural Resources Policy & Advocacy Committee, where I am one of North Carolina's representatives.  Among other key decisions, we approved the following changes or updates to the NLC's policies:
    --Issued a strong call for federal action on global warming. 
    --Called for Congress to implement tax incentives for demand-side management tools to promote energy efficiency.
    --Adopted a resolution calling for support of the further development and use of plug-in electric hybrid vehicles.
    --Opposed federal public land sales conducted for the purpose of obtaining short-term program operating funds.  (That's like selling off your house for the money to pay your phone bill!)
  • Participating in deliberations by the Central Cities Council (representing cities of more than 200,000 population), where I serve as a member of the Steering Committee.  I was especially pleased that the Central Cities Council accepted my recommendation to make increased federal support for public transit a top priority domestic federal policy issue for 2007.  Improving public transportation is a key part of our overall strategy to save energy, control public costs, clean up our air, build our economy, and keep our towns and cities great places to live. 

Participating in this annual national conference, and its spring counterpart in Washington, provides irreplaceable opportunities to consult with our counterparts from around the nation who are working on similar problems and generating innovative solutions.  It also gives us the chance to impact the policy positions of the National League of Cities itself.   There were more than 3,500 municipal officials in attendance at the conference this year.  Collectively, the member municipalities of the NLC come from 19,000 U.S. cities and towns, which directly serve over 218 million Americans.   Together, that gives us some real clout in influencing how Congress and federal agencies deal with the urban problems that affect us here in Winston-Salem, and around the United States.

I'll conclude my report for this month before I completely exhaust your reading patience.  As always, please feel welcome to contact me with questions or comments at danbesse@danbesse.org or 722-1674.  Thanks and Happy New Year!