iMesa Online Initiative Transforms Arizona Community With Citizen Participation

Three years ago Mesa, Arizona, had so many foreclosures that President Obama chose the city as the site for a speech about the housing crisis. The conservative city regularly made the headlines due to the antics of former Republican state senator Russell Pearce, who was the lead sponsor of the state's tough anti-immigration law and who chose to call an earlier deportation proposal "Operation Wetback." And Mesa, which lies in the valley east of Phoenix, was voted the country's most boring city by Forbes magazine.

Today, on the eve of the state's Republican primary, things have changed in the city long known for its "wide streets and narrow minds." Though Mesa is still wracked by a high foreclosure rate, unemployment is down, Pearce was ousted in a recall election last year and community spirits are up. Much of the credit for that last detail has been given to Mayor Scott Smith, who launched iMesa last January, an initiative that acts as an online suggestion box, where residents submit, vote and comment on ideas for transforming the community.

In its first year, more than 1,000 residents offered 250 ideas, some of which have already been implemented: from new recycling programs to a technology incubation hacker-space and other, bigger projects that are in development, such as a community garden and renovation of a long-dormant shopping district called Fiesta Village. Last month, Chicago's Benedictine University announced plans to open a campus in downtown Mesa, citing community support on iMesa as one of the factors that prompted its decision.

Once ideas are posted online, other residents vote on them (up to 10 votes per person) and a citizen committee processes them and prioritizes the most important and feasible projects. The initiative has changed the minds of long-time cynics who were used to a city council known for its antipathy to spending.

"This has brought a whole new outlook, a whole new dialogue to the community," says Terry Benelli, the director of the nonprofit Neighborhood Economic Development Corporation. "In the past, we were afraid to talk about a new community garden or spending money on an arts center in such an anti-tax environment. Now they're considering a bond vote for improvements and even a property tax, which is unheard of in a conservative Republican town."

Though some city council members initially grumbled about their districts not getting attention, the city has conducted community meetings to get input from those neighborhoods. At each meeting, computers are available for low-income residents who may lack online access or who are reluctant to voice their opinions in public.

"When people go online, they're much less inhibited than at a public meeting, where there is a hierarchy that dominates," says Mayor Smith. "We're challenging people to come up with tranformative ideas, to change their neighborhood, to add something that will change the city. To get that done, we had to move on from the old way of doing things, of figuring out what's a great project and then selling it to the people. We need complete community buy-in."

Now towns and cities around the state, including Tempe and Phoenix, are looking for ways to replicate the experience with their own online community initiatives.

The appeal of iMesa and similar initiatives is that they can build community capacity: the capacity of citizens who want to be involved and volunteer to complete desired projects, says Rhonda Phillips, community development professor at Arizona State University. During a time of job cutbacks on the state and local level, such initiatives are popular because they don't involve major public expenditures and get residents to do the work formerly done by public employees. "This is the wave of the future, to have a committed citizenry get involved in problem-solving, given the new fiscal realities," she says. "You're going to see a rise in community participation on issues that can't be resolved with the limited resources at the public level."