By Midge Pierce
A grievance filed within a SE neighborhood association may shed needed daylight on changing roles, responsibilities and rules of NAs and their supporting organizations.
Filed by a Richmond Neighborhood Association (RNA) board member against another board member and the RNA, the grievance lands as the former Office of Neighborhood Involvement (ONI) transitions to the Office of Community and Civic Life (OCCL). With “Neighborhood” no longer in OCCL’s name and the elimination of neighborhood coordinator positions, NA members wonder if the agency will still support them and function with the transparency they need to model in their own associations.
Answers may come as the grievance plays out amid discussions of potential process abuse and actions that effectively overruled the RNA’s annual Board election.
The grievance complaint filed by Allen Field and signed by 30 members alleges violations of Open Meetings rules, set by still existing ONI standards and Code of Ethics, incorporated into RNA bylaws.
The grievance stems from the cancellation, without public notice, of a Bylaws vote slated to go to the general membership and the appointment of individuals who had not received enough votes to be elected. Board members have always been elected, not appointed, according to Field, since he started attending meetings in 2004. He says he seeks RNA accountability for following process, not removal of anyone from the board.
In a time of hotly divisive issues – landuse, demolition, infill and transportation – procedures matter. Field is concerned about what he calls an almost two-year pattern of RNA Open Meeting violations that could continue if the NA is not held to task. “This issue is important to ensure the goals of transparency and accountability that are at the heart of the Open Meeting rules.”
RNA member Vivian Libson, a grievance signatory, expressed outrage over circumventing the election. “Our votes were thrown away. We should not be deprived of our right to vote. This is not Russia.”
One of the people appointed to the board is new chair Matt Otis, named in the grievance for violating Open Meeting rules by emailing the board privately about his plan to make a motion to cancel the Bylaws vote.
Otis declined to address the allegations specifically, saying he would follow prescribed practices. He then offered a measured summation of the imperfect nature of the all-volunteer organization. “Everyone here loves this neighborhood and wants it to be better,” he said.
In August, RNA appointed a facilitator to select a committee to review the complaint for merit and report back to the board. The committee will include a board member, a neutral community member, a representative of neighborhood coalition Southeast Uplift. Molly Mayo of SE Uplift has acknowledged the grievance is a public record, but cautioned against its publication because of the harm it might do to individual reputations.
Richmond boasts that it has one of Portland’s most active neighborhood associations – a mix of camaraderie, activism and the challenges of change. Standing room only crowds are frequent.
No stranger to controversy, RNA has been accused of election irregularities in the recent past. This summer, a resident read aloud a multi-point plea for civility. Given the rapid densification and demographic shifts along Division St., Richmond has become a poster child for debates about the pros and cons of future growth.
Richmond is hardly alone with transition tensions. As old Portland becomes Next Portland, groups in the minority are becoming majorities in some neighborhoods and new common interests evolve.
Sunnyside and Montavilla NAs have largely rallied around support of renters’ rights, affordability and compassion for the houseless. Homogeneous neighborhoods like Laurelhurst tend to focus on crime prevention and community preservation. As a whole, SE Uplift has become significantly more diverse as special interests a pundit labels “communities of identity” take charge.
The transformation of the former ONI (established as a link between NAs and the City), into OCCL is intended to engage a broader range of community partners. In the process of becoming more inclusionary, some longtime stakeholders feel excluded by what they see as a reversal that subtracts rather than adds voices. They fear cohesive neighborhoods are losing clout beneath a heavy-handed bureaucracy with a social engineering mission.
It didn’t help that during a SE Uplift meeting some months ago, an agency official made an offhand comment that it might be time for those who have never been marginalized to feel what it’s like.
A concern raised by Field is whether OCCL will change neighborhood meeting processes. Field claims that, “OCCL Director Suk Rhee told him she does not think Open Meeting rules should apply to NAs.”
Field responded: “Suspending Open Meeting rules would allow NAs all over the City to become private cliques of people proposing policy and land use and transportation changes under the façade of ‘representing’ this community.”
Eastside resident Rod Merrick, a preservation advocate and frequent participant in citizen advisory committees, says OCCL’s recent staff and process upheavals are “all in the name of equity”.
He adds, “For many Portlanders, using equity as a means to increasingly exclude them does not seem consistent with the idea or ideals that have sustained neighborhood associations and sense of local accountability and civic participation for the last 40 years.”