North Pasadena residents who called the Neighborhood Connection Line last week found out that the Board of Directors would discuss traffic problems on North Wilson Avenue at the next meeting, that residents would have only a few more days to enter a Rose Bowl ticket drawing and that seven neighborhood streets would be re-surfaced during the week.
The two-minute recorded message they heard provided a summary of what the city government would do in their neighborhoods over the coming week.
Each zip code in the city has been assigned a special telephone number, and more than 200 Pasadena residents have been calling in each week to find out what might be of interest in their neighborhoods.
The messages, updated every Friday by the Neighborhood Services Project, list agenda items for coming Board of Directors meetings, public hearings on zoning issues, meetings of neighborhood associations--many of the things residents need to know to become more involved in community affairs.
The purpose of the tapes, said Toni Stuart, Neighborhood Services coordinator for the city, is "to give residents enough information about things before they happen, so they can influence the outcome."
The tapes are one of several tools Stuart uses in her effort to improve communications between City Hall and residents and to make neighborhood organizations more effective.
Her job is an unusual one: helping residents cut through the bureaucratic red tape that frequently stands between them and the solutions to their problems.
Stuart, who works out of an office at Hen's Teeth Square in northwest Pasadena, spends her days distributing information on issues ranging from development to crime prevention to earthquake preparedness to neighborhood associations and responding to requests for advice on how to solve specific problems.
Since taking the full-time job in July, she has provided step-by-step instructions on how to protest the granting of liquor licenses and how to get abandoned vehicles towed off streets. She also has offered advice on how to work with police to keep drug dealers from doing business in front of residences.
"The residents are more and more having an opportunity to take back control of the city," said Stuart, 50, who has lived in Pasadena for 37 years and worked in a variety of civic and social service jobs.
"There were some years when you had to ask, 'Whose city is this? Does it belong to the bureaucrats? Does it belong to the people who work at City Hall? Or does it belong to the people who live in it?' " she said.
The idea for the Neighborhood Connection came from Director Rick Cole. Similar programs had been sponsored by nonprofit groups such as the the Urban League and Neighborhood Housing Services during the 1970s. When federal funding for those programs was cut back, Cole argued that the city needed its own liaison to neighborhood groups.
Cole said it took him two years to convince city officials and community activists that the project was a good idea. Some neighborhood groups, accustomed to seeing City Hall as the enemy, worried that such an office might be used by the city only to placate them, and some city departments thought that providing assistance to grass-roots organizations was not their job.
Some doubts still linger, and Stuart believes that the main problem is a misperception of what her job really is.
"I can't advocate," she said. "That's not my role. I just put people in touch with the issues, provide information. . . . I'm not going to ally with one group over another."
Although a number of neighborhood activists said that it was too early to tell how effective the project would be, they agreed that their initial contacts with Stuart have been positive.
"It's a very good operation, I think," said Bob Huddy of the Heather Heights Neighborhood Assn.
"The earthquake is a good example," he said. "Toni Stuart got me a lot of information about cracked chimneys and repairs. . . . It made a real difference in calming people down and saving them a lot of money."
Huddy also said that because Stuart works for the city, she can focus the attention of officials on issues they might not otherwise take seriously.
On the other hand, Rene Amy, a neighborhood activist who said he frequently finds himself in an antagonistic relationship with City Hall, said he doubted that Stuart's office could act independently.
Amy, who works with the Bungalow Heaven Organizing Committee, said that although the Neighborhood Connection is a good idea--"Anything that opens up the process of city government, more power to it"--he would like to see Stuart in a position where she could really fight for community concerns.
"Because she is a member of city staff, there are limits to what she can and will do in terms of going after problems," Amy said. "For the big heavy-hitting issues, I don't know how effective she'll be from the neighborhood point of view."