By Midge Pierce
Portland Neighborhood Associations’ fragile tethers to City Hall are growing ever more tenuous.
That’s because changes in the Code for the Office of Community and Civic Life may determine which groups the City responds to on land use, growth, infrastructure, parking, safety, homelessness and more.
Proposed changes posit that serving “self-identifying communities” are foundations for racial and social justice goals. No mention is made of neighborhood associations.
Observer Allen Field says, “This is nothing less than eliminating the NA program and the City no longer recognizing NAs.”
He says the new code tosses out open meeting rules and standards used in its former Office of Neighborhood Involvement incarnation.
At least one speculation inside City Hall is that changes would trigger re-jiggering planning department Zoning Codes since planners currently recognize neighborhood associations as the official collaborative group on the receiving end of public notices and proposals.
In short, what the new Civic Life code may mean is that a majority of residents could lose their official information pipeline, voice and clout.
The City currently supports regional Coalitions that have traditionally recognized and funded neighborhood associations as their “go to” influence drivers.
As Civic Life moves toward a new code that de-emphasizes geographic communities in favor of special interest and social alliance groups, a key question is whether NAs could lose funding when contracts for regional umbrella organizations like SE Uplift come due, some as early as next year.
The stifling of neighborhood voices is endemic, according to a longtime neighborhood activist, who says Portland agencies are co-opted by organizers who claim community volunteers are elitist. The situation turns inclusivity into a new form of exclusivity.
“The public should be outraged that the neighborhood system, started as a tool to give rise to civic voices, is being suppressed in the name of equity.”
Self-selected special interest groups, some with deep pockets and paid staff as neighborhood volunteers and others lacking time and resources are pushed to the margins, he continues.
“If the Open Meeting rules and ONI Standards are eliminated,” adds Field, “then there’s nothing to prevent a group of people from taking over a NA and pushing their personal agenda under the guise and facade of representing the community.”
Transparency, community notice, accountability and recourse will vanish, he concludes.
Like having high beam headlights coming at neighborhoods may be switched off, leaving neighborhoods in the dark about matters of zoning, growth and governance, comments another longtime community volunteer.
That high beam of scrutiny on NAs has been showing up lately from coalition meetings to OCCL’s student video in which teenagers question the relevance and representation of neighborhood associations.
If approved by a hand-chosen Civic Life committee, the proposed code is slated to go before City Council in late August – a time when residents are either on vacation or busy getting ready for returns to schools.
As with so many city initiatives, unintended consequences could follow.
One conjecture is: without city funding, neighborhood associations would be forced to support themselves with dues, potentially promoting the exclusivity at which OCCL aimed its beams in the first place.