“Nothing about us without us.” It’s a common phrase that has been used by political movements in history — notably during the 1990s disability rights movement in the United States.
That phrase should be a touchstone for government officials who make decisions about billions of dollars of hurricane rebuilding funds that have the ability to impact the lives of hundreds of thousands of Texans. Too often, decision powers of Texas officials and ways to influence the process can often seem like a black box to the public, particularly those who have little interaction with government. In the case of disaster recovery, the onus is on the General Land Office, which administers recovery, to open up the process in order to ensure that decisions made about communities are made with communities.
So far, the GLO has some work to do on that front.
On page 53, the the GLO writes that it “will ensure that all citizens have equal access to information about the programs.” Regulations from the Department of Housing and Urban Development require that the state put together a citizen participation plan. This plan is not available in the draft of the State’s action plan and it is not available anywhere apparent to the public on the agency’s website. Instead, there is a webpage shown below:
When Texas Housers reviewed the State of Texas’ draft action plan for the initial $57.8 million federal allocation, we could not find a citizen participation plan. This kind of plan is not something new to Texas government agencies — in fact, the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs uses a number of effective strategies already.
For example, TDHCA operates a Public Comment Center on its website to make it easier for the public to comment and provide feedback. There are also working groups and committees that help to gather feedback and discuss affordable housing needs. Most notably, the TDHCA puts on public hearings and surveys that are accessible to people who work during the day, people with limited English speaking proficiency and people with disabilities.
HUD recommends exploring alternative public engagement methods that encourage a “shared vision of change for the community.” These techniques include focus groups and use of the internet, according to the regulations.
We are troubled by the fact that the General Land Office has not discussed an intention to hold a single public hearing for this initial plan, nor is there a robust plan available that discusses genuine encouragement of citizen participation.
In our comments to the GLO, we recommend the following actions:
- Develop, with public participation, a detailed citizen participation plan;
- Publicize the plan by engaging in outreach to community organizations representing low- and moderate-income residents in disaster affected areas.
- Adopt all the citizen participation strategies now used by the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs
- Hold public hearings in Austin and across disaster-affected areas.
Too often, the people Texas Housers works with feel that they have little access to the daily governmental processes that affect the quality of their neighborhoods and access to services. Disaster recovery is a time when the federal government directs the state and local affected areas to invest billions of federal dollars in communities. This process should be simple, transparent, and open to all.