Tag Archives: Hill House Association

Accountability, Transparency Always Matter, But Now They Really Do

In my last post I talked about the part of The People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond’s analysis that says structural racism is maintained in ALANA (African, Latino, Asian and Native American) communities in part because gatekeepers are not accountable to the community whose poverty makes their work possible and necessary. While below I explain more about what I mean by “accountability”, I support the general point that gatekeepers are not structurally responsible to the neighborhood, because this is what I have seen having worked in, governed and consumed services in the Hill District for nearly twenty years. Increasing the transparency element of accountability (see below) is something I worked on as part of the formation of One Hill, by using an online community, posting of minutes, membership based voting on critical issues, such as staff salary (the staff member was my wife) and org leadership. However, even One Hill’s transparency lessened once it had a formal leadership structure and negotiations for the CBA began, and most of my other work in the Hill, whether managing the African Brazilian arts organization, Nego Gato, Inc. or working as a case manager or board member for the Hill House Association, was not a part of a process that was accountable to the neighborhood in a substantive way.

To be clear, the issue of accountability is not simply about personal choices and values. It’s how most neighborhoods like the Hill District are structured and its nature of the non-profit industry generally. So, as one would expect, this lack of accountability is still the case in the Hill today. However, greater implications, because the Hill is in such a state of flux as the Hill House builds a new Grocery Store, the Urban Redevelopment, in partnership with the Hill District Community Development Corp, redevelops Centre Ave, and the Master Plan is implemented (although the process by which this will happen is not clear to me). When this is coupled with either our local politicians weakening what accountability mechanisms now exist in the community (see Laing letter to Lavelle-Support the Planning Forum) or missing opportunities to develop these mechanisms (see exchange with Rep. Wheatley in my first post about the lack of public information on the Hill District Growth/Casino Fund), it makes for a situation ripe to come out in a way a residents do not like or understand.

I need to be more specific as to this idea of “accountability”. What does it really mean and what would it look like if Hill District institutions were more accountable to community members? Andreas Schedler in Conceptualizing Accountability breaks accountability into two sections: answerability and enforcement. In the context of gatekeepers, answerability is having to say what the organization is doing and/or why it has done it and enforcement is the capacity for constituencies to impose standards or sanctions on gatekeepers who have not kept their end of the bargain. For the purposes of this post, I want to focus on answerability. In order for gatekeepers to meet a standard of answerability, information about the organization and its work should be visible and high quality. Visible is pretty self-explanatory, but it includes the idea of the organization making its best effort of offering a full picture of what is going on so we can really “see”. By high quality, I mean interested community members should be able to make meaning for themselves as to what is going on because the data is in as raw form as possible (minutes, financial reporting, periodic updates) and is prepared for a variety of consuming styles (public meetings, internet postings, newsletters). While Schedler is talking about accountability for political actors or public agencies, I have applied his ideas to the challenge of making gatekeepers accountable as non-profit agencies are public charities. For me, the idea of answerability is best understood as transparency and my explanation of answerability is taken from Greg Michener’s and Katherine Bersch’s Conceptualizing_the_Quality_of_Transparency–.

So, how could these ideas around accountability be made real for gatekeepers and gatekeeping organizations in the Hill District? Staying with the part of accountability that is answerability and the part of answerability that is transparency, I’ll give some examples of transparency standards for the community’s gatekeepers that we all might better legitimize the notion of speaking in the name of the neighborhood. Here are five standards or practices that could be implemented fairly easily and one that would take a little more doing (membership):

  • Publicly posting synopsis of funded projects, the dollar amount awarded and the success indicators associated with the project;
  • Posting of 990s on websites with a standard they will be up within 9 months of the FY ending.
  • Posting of bylaws on website;
  • .A membership structure that allows community residents to have a voting stake in the organization;
  • A publicly available written policy for the amount of board members that will live in the community for organizations housed in the community;
  • Annual meetings at which all the above materials would be available and the organizations success against goals would be discussed and open for conversation.

These standards are only examples and in many ways they represent less accountability than is required by the various funders who support the work, yet its the community’s financial poverty, social challenges and collective history that underwrites much of it. My point is that residents and gatekeepers would benefit from asking for and designing more powerful accountability processes than the ones in place today. According to Michener and Bersch, the amount of transparency in a sector is directly related to the demand for it. If we fear losing the neighborhood, one of the ways to prevent this from happening is to become more active in asking what is happening now and not simply waiting for the “inevitable”. One of my intentions with this blog is that it will increase demand for accountability in the Hill. If you agree it’s an issue worth more attention, please share this entry with someone who lives or works in the neighborhood, comment and then follow the blog for further discussion.

Just In Time For Fall, The Welfare Queen Is Back

Getting some attention on Friday from Hill District advocates and watchers was an article written by the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (AIPP) and distributed thru email titled “The Hill District Grocery: The long (and getting longer) and sad tale.” This article was then basically redrafted as a Pittsburgh Tribune Review editorial titled Another Central Planning Failure. Since the Tribune Review editorial page links you to the AIPP blog, quotes the AIPP President, Jake Faulk, as its principal analyst and we can assume Mr. Faulk signed off on, if not wrote, the initial blog, I will at times refer to these two pieces as one, so as to avoid confusion in regards to which article I am referencing.

Beginning with the titles, the pieces work hard to pin the tags of “greedy”, “incompetent” and “handout seeking” on the Hill District and the grocery store effort and go into some depth with a standard grocery store financial model to then predict the store’s chances for success and failure. As we approach the fall election, the article invokes the frame of the Welfare Queen, common law wife of Willie Horton, and refers to the eventual employees of the store as “the help”, but there are still a couple of things Hill residents can take away that I will mention at the end of this post.

The article begins with the seemingly innocuous statement that “In 2008 the Hill House Association (HHA) began a renewed effort to attract a grocery store”, but this skips some important context. In 2008 (and I served on the HHA board at this time) the HHA was a member of the One Hill Coalition that secured a Community Benefits Agreement with a number of stakeholders, including the Sports and Exhibition Authority, the Penguins and City and County government. Getting to this agreement was very difficult with challenges both internal and external to the neighborhood and was largely based on the huge pubic subsidy that was being given to the Penguins. However, it was also made possible because of the widespread acknowledgement of the travesty done to Hill District residents in 1955 when the city invoked eminent domain to take tens upon tens of acres of property in the Lower Hill to build the Civic Arena, and in doing so displaced hundreds of Hill District businesses and thousands of Hill District people. The editorial quantifies the public dollars in the project as a bit over 25%, presumably to justify its jurisdiction on this matter, but this number is miniscule in comparison to the cost to this community in the taking of the Lower Hill. The AIPP states its mission is in part to “roll back the size of local government” and says one of its principles is  property rights, but outside of the treatment of Native Americans, what greater sign of big government, central planning and property right violation is there in this region’s history than the use of eminent domain in the Hill District? In public policy terms, I can’t think of a better description for this piece of the region’s history than “greedy”, “incompetence” and “handouts”…

More could be said about the article, but I do think that it brings up the question of what are the actual grocery store projections. As residents we should be aware of the non-proprietary pieces of the information not because of the convenient taxpayer dollar hammer used in the article, but because it is the neighborhood’s collective history that is the store’s chief stakeholder. Knowing what will be expected of us in terms of purchasing, etc. will only help us be informed and ready as community residents and/or supporters of the community to do whatever is necessary to make the store a success. This should not be done on the AIPP or Tribune’s timetable but done in the spirit of collective work and responsibility once the deal is closed.

Hill District Consensus Group’s August 29th Meeting on the Casino/Growth Fund

This meeting was actually held in August, but summing it up now will give some good background for later posts on the fund and the Hill District’s effort to get a grocery store. The Hill District Consensus Group (HDCG), my wife’s (Dr. Bonnie Young Laing) employer, sponsored the meeting and featured PA State Representative Jake Wheatley, my Omega Psi Phi Fraternity brother, providing information and answering questions about a fund called the Growth Fund, please click here for a Growth Fund Public Information Document provided to me by Rep. Wheatley’s office in advance of the meeting and here for information on the fund provided by HDCG.  For a more complete summary of the meeting, please click here for the Hill District Consensus Group’s meeting summary.

Active for about two years, the fund has made $400,000 in grants to the Hill District Community Development Corporation to support its operations and it will reportedly be ready to make grants to other community organizations by the end of 2012.

Rep. Wheatley shared the following about the fund:

  • Proposed projects must be tied to the Hill District Master Plan;
  • Developers must have a relationship to a Hill District non-profit organization to be eligible;
  • The fund is housed at the POISE foundation and is governed by 8 voting members with an extra 3 non-voting political representatives (see the above link for a list of the members);
  • The fund should be ready to make grants by the end of the year;

In addition to discussing general questions on the fund, a question promoted in advance of the meeting was whether the fund would give money to the grocery store. This issue did come up and important questions were raised, but not resolved. In response to a question that was asked about the status of the grocery store, Ms. Cheryl Hall-Russell, C.E.O. of the Hill House Association (HHA) and the Hill House Economic Development Corporation (the EDC), communicated that the EDC had indeed submitted a request to the Growth Fund for the Grocery Store. However, when the application was submitted the criteria had not been developed and she was unclear about how decisions on the fund were being made. Hall-Russell added that time was of the essence and so waiting until the end of the year was a problem. Rep Wheatley responded that the fund was not responsible for the deadlines facing the Hill House and shared that the Hill House’s request was for $800,000, with $400,000 coming as a grant request and $400,000 as a request for a loan. He further added that the request had provoked questions from the fund that needed to be resolved before a decision could be made and that the Growth Fund had sent these to the EDC.

During the meeting I asked Rep. Wheatley if he was at liberty to share the questions the Growth Fund sent to the EDC and he replied that he did not know the questions off the top of his head, but that he could get them to me. I have been in discussion with Rep. Wheatley’s office about these questions and they have been responsive, but they have said they would like to have the Hill House Association’s agreement that it is ok to share this information. This is understandable, so I will give an update on that issue in a later post. It may also turn out there are more important matters to focus on.

At one point in the meeting, I said to Rep. Wheatley that I thought the governing committee of the fund should rotate members because the membership seemed to me closely affiliated with the Representative’s campaign and the Hill CDC and that this fund was quasi-public because of the nature of the Representative’s position as a political representative. The Representative stated that the fund was not actually a public fund and that he had a number of ideas on how to use grants panels made up of community members so that the residents could have significant input on how decisions were made.  Ms. Marimba Milliones, Executive Director of the Hill District CDC, had the last comment of the meeting and said my comments were unfair, that this governing group had stood up in defense of the neighborhood and that Rep. Wheatley should be commended for going to get these resources for the benefit of the Hill (these comments are not reflected in the HDCG summary). I actually agree with Marimba’s comments with the exception of the one saying that my statement about the relationship of the governing committee to the Representative and the Hill CDC was unfair, but may deal with that in a later post.

The meeting closed with the moderator of the meeting, Dr. Emma Lucas Darby, thanking Rep. Wheatley and the public for coming out for the discussion and adding that it was clear that the community was not clear about the fund and that more information should be available in writing. The Representative seemed amenable to this idea and hopefully this blog and the Hill District Consensus Group’s meeting summary are steps in that direction. A special shout out to the Consensus Group for convening this discussion.