“Good fences make good neighbors” goes the old saying.
But sometimes fences alone are not enough and it takes a helping hand from local government — city, village or town — to help determine exactly where the lines of responsibility should fall when neighbors are at odds.
That came to mind last week when we read two news reports of neighbors feuding. One involved a local restaurant, the Blue Bear, at 2920 Taylor Ave., where the operator chronicled trouble with fights and loud parties with a second-floor apartment and a neighboring building that was spilling over into the restaurant even as customers were having breakfast.
The other was a falling out between two neighbors over tall trees on Luedtke Avenue that were literally falling out and damaging the buildings on one of the neighbor’s properties.
What was common to both cases was the frustration the complaining neighbors had over attempts to get some local government help from the City of Racine in settling the issues — despite repeated attempts.
Now we understand that city officials and departments often have no jurisdiction or ability to help in some cases and some may well have to be settled in small claims court or through other legal avenues.
But in other cases, the city might actually be able to lend a hand, defuse feuds and mend some of those fences. That seems to us a reasonable — and laudable — function for local government, whether it’s the City of Racine, villages of Mount Pleasant or Caledonia, or any other local government.
In discussing the Blue Bear dispute, Alderman Sandy Weidner mentioned there used to be a dedicated committee to handle such situations, the Committee on Housing and Neighborhoods, that was made up of 11 aldermen and representatives from every city department (except fire). According to a news report, community members were invited to present neighborhood issues to the committee and the aldermen and department heads, who could then immediately brainstorm solutions collaboratively.
“We could respond in a more rapid fashion,” Weidner said.
That committee, however, was disbanded by former Mayor Gary Becker in 2006 and replaced by a “Sustainable Neighborhood Listening Committee,” which has five aldermen, but no department heads.
Now, we don’t know what the historical effectiveness of the original Committee on Housing and Neighborhoods was in resolving neighborhood issues; how often it met or how many citizens came forward seeking its help. And we can imagine it sometimes chafed city department heads when they had to listen to debate on issues that did not affect their departments when they had other work to do. Those concerns need to be weighed.
But it also seems to us that such a committee — stocked as it was with both aldermen and city department officials with a vast knowledge of the often byzantine city codes, laws, responsibilities and practices — could render solid citizen direction and help, not only with disputes, but with the proper guidance on what citizens needed to do to accomplish their goal.
Instead of traipsing around from one city agency to another and hearing, “That’s not our department,” a citizen instead might get a response from one department or another of: “We can help you with that. You need to do X, Y and Z.”
If the city is really committed to serving the public and easing their access to government services, it might well want to look at reviving the Housing and Neighborhoods Committee as a one-stop shop to cut through the often confusing red tape and confusing codes and giving citizens help when they need it.