Community partnerships offer great potential for public works

Cora Jackson-Fossett
Public Affairs Director, Department of Public Works
City of Los Angeles, California
Chair, APWA Diversity Committee

When Los Angeles public works officials saw the City's infrastructure slowly crumbing, they appealed to elected officials for more funding to help stop the mounting decay. After being met with deaf ears, they launched an Infrastructure Awareness Campaign and took their message directly to the people, with the hope of involving them as advocates for increased funding for public works programs. That was in late 2002.

These efforts resulted in a diverse group of community, civic and business organizations joining with Department of Public Works personnel to halt the momentum of the City's deterioration.

Now, almost three years later, the Department is seeing their community partnerships pay off. Last year, Los Angeles voters approved passage of a $500 million stormwater bond issue to help the City comply with Total Maximum Daily Load regulations. Moreover, elected officials have proposed doubling the street resurfacing budget for Fiscal Year 2005-06, and long-dormant programs such as sidewalk repair and improved streetlighting replacement have suddenly taken on new life.

One time-trusted method of positive community outreach is having public works leaders meet with residents at informal gatherings to bring them up-to-date on activities underway or planned in their neighborhoods and respond to any questions or concerns they may have. Above, City of Los Angeles Department of Public Works Board Commissioner Valerie Lynne Shaw discusses activities with local residents.

The key to success in such an undertaking as the Infrastructure Awareness Campaign lies in building positive relationships with local organizations to inform, educate and involve them in improving the quality of life in their community. These groups can cross ethnic, religious, political and social boundaries to encompass schools, churches, fraternal groups and block clubs as well as many other organizations.

Most municipalities have a wide range of organizations that their public works departments can partner with, either on specific projects or for support of a general departmental goal such as improving the quality of life in your city.

Your department's public information office usually has on hand lists of these organizations for its mailings and can assist in developing outreach plans, drafting contact letters and scheduling presentations about your public works activities. Lists of community organizations can also be compiled from a local telephone directory or obtained from the local Chamber of Commerce, elected officials, a citywide citizens group or a host of other resources. In addition, compile an e-mail listing of the people in these organizations, if at all possible. You are only limited by the extent of your imagination.

The next step is to arrange for regular communication with these organizations about public works activities in their neighborhood that have a significant impact on the entire citizenry. Request to deliver updates or presentations at monthly meetings of these groups, write a column in their newsletter, or conduct quarterly tours of public works projects or facilities and invite them to attend.

News releases to local neighborhood newspapers are invaluable in these undertakings. Even if it is not published, the editor, in most cases, will still be apprised of your activities and will have this information in mind when writing something about your department. These news releases can also be sent to everyone on the e-mail mailing list you have compiled with the request to "pass along the information." In addition, create a link on your city's official website for these news releases so the general public can read them.

Other activities that public works personnel can use in their quest to build community partnerships include:

  • Becoming the public works liaison to a community group.
  • Speaking at organizational meetings.
  • Hosting a city services information fair.
  • Creating a mentoring program with a local school.
  • Reserving a table to provide information on your activities at a neighborhood event.
  • Developing an in-house speaker's bureau comprised of employee experts.

Local learning institutions are also ideal locations for community outreach for public works activities. Pictured above, City of Los Angeles Department of Public Works personnel take their information to the campus of Los Angeles City College to bring that generation up-to-date on the Department's activities, thereby (and hopefully) eliciting their support for future programs and activities.

Citizens who are concerned about how their tax dollars are being used, will be much more receptive when funding increases are requested or bond proposals are on the ballot if they are kept abreast of your plans and activities. Also, since elected officials usually listen to their constituents, they are more likely to approve allocation of adequate budgets for infrastructure work when citizens get in the act and voice their support.

The community outreach element of Los Angeles' Infrastructure Awareness Campaign includes continuing presentations before civic groups such as the Lions and Rotary, block clubs, business organizations, churches and even schools. Discussion topics range from the state of the City's (crumbling) infrastructure to its pavement management plan, and from solid resources disposal options to benefits of its alternative fuel vehicle fleet. Topics only affecting specific neighborhoods may cover proposed sewer rehabilitation, library construction, graffiti and illegal dumping removal.

These partnerships with community groups played a large role in achieving our positive results. Our goal is to continue to build on these relationships so that everyone in Los Angeles is aware of the great job done by its Department of Public Works and voice their support for these efforts.

Cora Jackson-Fossett can be reached at (213) 978-0319 or at cjackson@bpw.lacity.org.

Another example of public works community outreach is holding meetings of the Board of Commissioners in various communities within the municipality and inviting elected officials to participate. Above, Los Angeles City Councilman Martin Ludlow speaks to attendees at a City of Los Angeles Department of Public Works Board meeting held in a selected community and offers his comments on various public works activities prior to the meeting.