Opinion: Is HPNA Inclusive and Democratic?

The Hyde Park Neighborhood Associations has a lot of power—don’t let them tell you otherwise. The city officials and staff pay attention to what gets voted on by HPNA.

Anyone who was present at last month’s meeting could see that. Austin’s two remaining mayoral candidates, Mike Martinez and Steve Adler, gushed over what they considered “democracy in action,” with more than 60 neighbors crowded into the Griffin School auditorium having a lively debate on important neighborhood issues. During the candidates’ remarks, they repeated time and again that neighborhoods should be left to make decisions on what is best for them, and that the city needs to listen.

I agree with that last sentiment, but do not agree that what our esteemed mayoral candidates witnessed was in fact democracy in action. What they did not see is that HPNA is beset by inclusiveness and participation issues.  From what I have observed so far, the decision-making process at HPNA is confined to a tight group of regulars whose philosophy basically boils down to this: Change of any kind is considered bad (with a healthy dose of “get off my lawn” thrown in).

Taken as a whole, HPNA bylaw provisions seem to ensure that an old guard and their allies come out ahead on all votes. Here are the facts on the bylaws. Meetings are held once a month; and in order to vote, you have to be present. Online voting, or early/delayed voting are not allowed. So it’s tough luck if you couldn’t find a baby sitter, or you’re at work late, or you have a family emergency. You do not have a vote. Also, we have a thriving small business community that the neighborhood depends on; but unless you also reside in Hyde Park, as a business owner you do not have a vote. And if you own property in Hyde Park, but you do not reside here (even though your livelihood might depend on the neighborhood), you do not have a vote.

Another significant feature of the bylaws that hinders inclusiveness, and has affected me personally, is the 30-day waiting period. This provision disenfranchises neighbors of their voice. While the bylaws make a member wait 30 days after paying dues in order to be able to cast a vote, these same bylaws only mandate the association inform the neighborhood of upcoming votes 7 days prior to a meeting, making it impossible for non-member neighbors interested in voting on an issue to have their opinions counted.

There are some valid arguments against some or all of the points I am raising, and they need to be discussed. Inclusiveness, however, must also be a part of that discussion. But it hasn’t been. In fact, it was reported to me that when someone brought up the issue of inclusiveness at a recent Steering Committee meeting, the reply from a long-standing member was, “HPNA bylaws specifically do not require that the association represent the interests of Hyde Park residents.”

Let me give you a second to let that sink in.

An organization that calls itself a neighborhood association—that makes recommendations (most of the time adopted) to the people that decide the fate of the city—actually admits that it holds no desire to represent our interests. And it’s true: its bylaws do not require it to do so. And they do not require it to make efforts to increase participation.

That’s just not right. As decisions are being made, hundreds and hundreds of Hyde Park residents are not part of the decision-making process.

The first step to addressing this problem is to admit that there is one. So far, I don’t think any HPNA officials have done so.  As a homeowner in Hyde Park, and as a brand-spanking-new-dues-paying-member of HPNA, I hope that discussion starts pronto (but hopefully in more than 30 days so I can actually cast a vote).

–Alejandro Puyana