Community councils seek more involvement

Attendance usually depends on issues, weather


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The six local community councils all have the same problem.

Unless there’s a “hot issue” on the agenda, attendance at the advisory groups’ monthly meetings is low.

Controversial topics bring in about 40 people to the Eagle River Community Council meetings, said president Mike Foster. But the average attendance is about 10, he said.

“We would like to see more membership,” Foster said. “Our council could certainly use some more involvement.”

Foster said he suspects he’s not alone.

“I think all the councils would enjoy a little bit more diversity and larger numbers,” he said.

Along with the issues, weather plays a major role in attendance for the Birchwood Community Council, chair Bobbi Wells said.

But ultimately, it’s the topic of discussion that brings in large crowds, South Fork Community Council President Karl Von Luhrte said.

“It depends on a lot of factors, but usually the issue is the main draw,” he said.

Wells agreed.

“A person has to see that the issue is affecting them or their neighborhood,” she said. “Otherwise, you can’t get them out.”

Releasing agendas in a timely manner is important, Wells said, so people can plan ahead to attend a meeting.

With so many families in Chugiak-Eagle River, after-school activities also dictate turnout, Wells said. If an evening event falls on the same night as a meeting, she said, no one shows.

But that’s just fine with Wells.

“Family comes first,” she said.

The amount of time an issue has been before a council correlates directly to meeting attendance, Wells said. The longer an issue has been discussed, the less interested residents are in rehashing the subject, she said.

“You can wear the public down,” Wells said.

The local chapters aren’t the only community councils suffering from low turnout.

Eagle River Valley Community Council president Therese Voehl said she volunteered at a conference of community councils from all over the country in May and heard similar comments.

“I got the same feedback from other people,” she said. “Unless there’s really something hot and breaking, it’s a pretty low turnout.”

The one exception is the Eklutna Valley Community Council.

“They’re fairly well attended,” president Rick Sinnott said of the meetings. “I’m happy with the attendance.”

But Eklutna Valley is different from the other five local chapters. It only meets a few times a year — whereas the others meet monthly — and is made up of about 30 households, Sinnott said.

About half of the homeowners show up at meetings, Sinnott said.

“Relative to our population, we have the highest attendance,” he said.

Sinnott said attendance would drop sharply if Eklutna Valley held more meetings.

“If we had them monthly, I don’t think very many people would show up,” he said.

Voehl said she wasn’t sure why turnout has been low at recent meetings. 

“I don’t know if it’s people are apathetic. I don’t know if people feel like they can’t make a change,” she said.

For those thinking the latter, they’re wrong, Von Luhrte said.

“This is the place we have our chance to get in at the grassroots level and have an impact,” he said.

If the majority of the community can compromise on an issue, they can take a unified stand, Sinnott said.

“It’s always good to have a discussion,” he said.

Issues discussed at the community council level are filtered to the Anchorage Assembly, Foster said.

“It’s just a great place for people to get started,” he said. “It’s a valuable piece of the process.”

The councils’ goal is to disseminate information to the public and get the people working together, Foster said.

“This is your opportunity to get involved in your community,” he said.

Wells said it’s important for community members to voice their opinions so others aren’t making decisions for them.

“If we don’t have your input and it has a negative impact on you, who’s to blame?” she said. “That is the bottom line.”

 

Contact Mike Nesper at 694-2727 or mike.nesper@alaskastar.com

 

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