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November 2014 • Online Edition
 

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Going On 40 Years, INC Claims Mission Of Strategic Action | Print |  E-mail

by Eric Peterson

Founded in 1975, Denver’s Inter-Neighborhood Cooperation (INC) was born of the politics of the time.

“Denver’s INC, individual neighborhood groups and the notification ordinance were part of a national neighborhood movement in the 1970s,” recalls Michael Henry, longtime INC representative for Capitol Hill and staff director for the Denver Board of Ethics. This movement “was part of several efforts to empower individual citizens – including anti-war, environmental, women’s rights and civil rights movements.”

Then on faculty at University of Denver, Bernie Jones was an early leader of a coalition of neighborhood groups that encompassed Greater Park Hill Community, South Central Improvement Association (now West Washington Park Neighborhood Association), and Capitol Hill United Neighborhoods. “They were all concerned, about the way the city government under Mayor William McNichols usually failed to inform and consult with residents or neighborhood associations, about issues and proposed changes that would affect neighborhoods,” explains Henry of Inter-Neighborhood Cooperation’s beginnings.

In 1979, INC worked with Denver City Council to pass the Neighborhood Registration and Notification Ordinance, still in effect. This gives registered neighborhood organizations (RNOs) a way to learn of important changes proposed by the city that will affect neighborhoods, increasing chances for citizens to work with the city early in the process – a bedrock objective of INC.

 Another is for RNOs to share experience, because what goes around in one part of town is likely to come around somewhere else. “Here’s what we did ...” can be a big help. There’s a great air of camaraderie at INC, as a group of interested, dedicated folks (with a healthy sense of reality – and humor) get to work on an important concern. There are RNO members from Green Valley Ranch to Harvey Park; from Inspiration Point to Hentzell Park, from Elyria to La Alma, Overland Park to Cheesman Park to Athmar Park, Golden Triangle and everywhere in between. When a matter comes to a vote, each RNO in INC gets two voting delegates, who represent their RNO and bring INC matters to their neighborhood for feedback. All INC meetings are open to the public and all neighbors are encouraged to attend and speak up.

Many members (and generous contributors throughout Denver) pitch in for INC’s annual Dollar Dictionary Drive, which has provided every third grader in the Denver Public Schools with a free dictionary since 1996. Now INC adds a free thesaurus. INC raises the funds, packages the books by school, delivers them, and usually presents them personally to the children. For some youngsters, it’s their first own book. Last fall the Dollar Dictionary Drive outreach provided 7,620 dictionaries and an equal number of thesauruses.

Former Denver City Council member Cathy Donohue says Denver’s mayor’s office historically had more power than its counterparts in other cities. While amendments in 1983 and 1991 normalized mayoral power in Denver, the need for checks and balances continues, and INC is adopting a more aggressive posture in recent years, with the intent being to provide the needed balance.

Larry Ambrose, INC’s current president became involved with the organization in the mid-1970s, after working with neighborhood groups in northwest Denver. In 1983, he helped spearhead a building height initiative with representatives from West Washington Park and other neighborhoods.

“The idea that neighborhoods would organize and have an effect is a great idea,” says Ambrose. However, the execution hasn’t always matched the inspiration, he adds, and credits the creation of a solid INC mission statement in 2010 to giving impetus to INC’s new effectiveness.

That mission statement pushes for more action than reaction: “INC’s mission is to advocate for Denver citizens by bringing together, forming, and empowering Denver neighborhood organizations to actively engage in city issues.” This sets the course for action.

Notes Ambrose: “That’s a significant change, because up until 2010 there was nothing in the bylaws that used the word ‘advocate.’” He says INC has added action to its original “inform and educate” posture and intent.

The move is just starting to bear fruit. “I think INC is a sleeping giant that has begun to awaken,” says Ambrose. “We’ve been more proactive in passing resolutions and addressing issues of citywide concern. We don’t hesitate to take informed positions on issues.”

Examples of such issues include city staff decisions to allow paid events in city parks, and a variety of advertisements in the parks. INC continues to push persistently for residents to be involved in the decision making from start to finish.

“We have advocated for better participation in all city issues,” says Ambrose. “Our primary goal is to involve neighborhoods in the planning process from the very beginning.”

Not that it always works out that way. “City Loop is an example of top-down decision-making,” he reflects, of the recently scrapped playground project in City Park. “They did not go to the community first and ask, ‘What would you like to see?’”

The city taking a more collaborative approach might have made for a different outcome, but the heavy-handed approach ultimately failed.

Taking its work seriously, INC has developed a white paper for Denver’s urban parks. It formalizes policy and offers a framework for moving park projects and programs forward. A similar paper for zoning is in the works, with other disciplines to follow.

Cindy Johnstone, INC vice president, commends Ambrose for his leadership and that of the organization’s board. “I think Larry has been instrumental in helping move the board towards advocacy,” she explains. “It’s a group process, not a single person, but certainly his leadership has been valuable.”

Johnstone calls the adoption of the mission statement a turning point. “It’s given delegates and INC a stronger voice, and a focus. There’s leader participation and encouragement to support our member RNOs effectively.”

“Our mantra is process,” she adds.

“It has been a struggle in some ways to move forward, because the status quo was comfortable.”

Any disconnect between the city and residents is usually process-based, Johnstone says. “They (city departments) do public input, but they do it after a decision. We’re trying to make sure citizens have a true voice.”

Just as INC has changed, the city needs to change in order to foster better collaboration. “We can be (the city’s) best allies, but the culture tends to be, ‘We’re the experts and we’ll tell you how it has to be done.’ That becomes a culture.”

Now things look like they’re moving in a more collaborative direction. Johnstone says she sees “little steps, positive steps of the city working with the citizens and community,” noting, “It’s exciting to see when that works.”

Denver officials weren’t keen on going into detail, but offered a positive review of city’s relationship with INC.

“The mayor’s office values our partnership with INC and will continue to work with them to engage communities across Denver,” says Michael Sapp, neighborhood liaison with Mayor Michael Hancock’s office, via email.

(Editor’s note: INC invites one and all to its monthly meeting, Sat., April 12, 8:45-11:30a.m., at the Mile High United Way building, 2505 - 18th St.; the city’s new manager of Planning and Development, Brad Buchanan, will speak and answer questions. Refreshments will be served, and free parking is available. Information: denverinc.org.)

 
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