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Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Keeping Them Honest: New Approaches to Candidate Accountability Sessions

From the Civic Engagement Workgroup of the Right To The City Alliance
Interview with Henry Serrano of Community Voice Heard

Candidate forums and community accountability sessions are long-favored tactics for engaging power. Often these events are the only time elected officials meet low-income residents. They can also serve to inspire interest and motivation for the civic process. Still, with shifting interests driving political campaigns and the globalizing of cities, communities are finding new ways to leveraging the public accountability tactic to foster real and usable relationships to governance. Below are excerpts from an interview with Henry Serrano of Community Voices Heard (CVH) on their approach to candidate accountability:

What was CVH’s approach to candidate accountability? What was the format and who was involved? 

The election season is an opportunity to raise the visibility of community issues. We organize public accountability sessions with candidates running for local, state and federal offices. In 2009, members from CVH’s NYC Public Housing and Sustainable Communities campaigns joined CVH’s chapters in Yonkers and Newburgh to organize a total of six accountability sessions. The sessions included candidates for NYC Council in three City Council districts, candidates for one City Council district in Yonkers and candidates from County Legislature and City Council in Newburgh.

In 2009, we used two different types of formats:

Accountability Sessions: In this format, CVH leaders developed and presented demands to the candidates. They asked specific questions to gauge the candidates’ level of support.

Accountability Tours: This year we tried a more dynamic form of accountability session by taking candidates for a NYC Council district in Queens on a tour of a public housing development. The candidates were escorted by CVH leaders and NYC Housing Residents to observe the impact of reduced funding on the quality of public housing.

The candidates were then presented with demands developed by CVH leadership. Demands varied by CVH campaign or chapter. Some examples included:

  • The creation of “accountability committees” by local government that include residents of low-income communities, elected officials, other stakeholders to oversee spending from revenue streams such as American Recovery and Redistribution Act (ARRA) and Community Development Block Grand (CDBG) funding.
  • Increased funding for public housing and the creation of affordable housing ordinances. 
  • Local & targeted hiring; job creation programs using CDBG and stimulus funds. 

What were the goals of the candidate accountability sessions? 

  • Raise the visibility of the organization with elected officials. 
  • Raise the visibility of the issues that we work on. 
  • Get commitments from elected officials on organizational demands.  

We document the commitments in various ways. Media often cover the events. Another way is to use “scorecards.” The community members in attendance individually keep a “scorecard” and there also is a large scoreboard where responses are recorded.

Create leadership development opportunities for membership. From core leadership to new members, people take on a variety of roles. Facilitation, agenda development, mobilization, presenting demands to targets, etc. These events particularly function well to move newer members into assuming stronger leadership roles in CVH. How did the candidates react? Any surprises?  Any success stories?

The candidates react in various ways. Some candidates are intimidated by the tone of the event and the directness of the demands. Others develop a reluctant respect for the level of organization at the event. Accountability sessions almost always open access to the candidates
elected into office.

We were surprised by the participation of the candidates this year. In Newburgh, for example, a total of twelve candidates participated (all candidates for the City Council and County Legislature). One reason may be the uniqueness of these types of events in some of the CVH communities. Our electoral project focuses on communities and potential voters that are largely ignored by candidates. We offer candidates the benefits of exposure. In exchange, we assess candidates’ commitments to community issues and then follow up once they are in office.

Any lessons learned or recommendations you would like to share with other Civic Engagement / RTTC groups in doing candidate accountability sessions? 

This is the first year that we tried something different from the static, town hall type of event. Our public housing tour with the candidates had a stronger and more relevant impact. It was a better way to present the issues that our members are confronting. In the future, we are going to think a little more creatively about how we can structure these types of events to take the candidates out of their comfort zones.

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