By Midge Pierce
A City Bureau under Commissioner Chloe Eudaly is rushing a code change to Council that, under the guise of equity and inclusion, weakens government accountability and eliminates the codified status of Portland’s ninety-five Neighborhood Associations.
Controversial code change 3.96 by the Office of Community and Civic Life (OCCL/aka Civic Life) would eliminate neighborhood (NA) recognition as the City’s official go-to for notification and public engagement on zoning, transportation and infrastructure.
After seven months of seemingly secretive meetings, OCCL’s draft rewrite surfaced with no reference to NAs or requirements for codified groups to abide by state standards for open meetings.
It’s an assault on Democracy, says urbanist Michael Mehaffy who views the rewrite as a way to stifle public voices. He warns that representative governments, no matter how well-intentioned, “die in darkness” when they lose transparency.
Stripping NA status could relieve City bureaus of neighborhood obligations and accountability on landuse, budgets and livability.
For over forty years, NAs have successfully fought off freeway expansions, protected parks from sell-offs and questioned city policies on safety, growth and the environment.
Commissioner Eudaly and OCCL Director Suk Rhee say their goal is to expand the “circle of engagement,” not dismantle NAs.
At summer events, the duo has doubled-down on calling NAs bastions of white privilege that exclude communities of color, the houseless and those with disability challenges and gender nonconformity.
Rhee claims, without evidence, that NAs have had disastrous impact. Diversity through “self-identified communities” is necessary, she says, because NAs are discriminatory, fail to welcome marginalized communities and are not representative of all Portland residents.
Actually, all residents are eligible to participate in the all-volunteer Neighborhood Associations. In a letter to Council, Stephanie Stewart, Mt. Tabor landuse chair, states, “Our meetings are open, our discussions and votes are transparent, and we cannot gain favor with City Council (or their appointed staff) with contributions to campaigns.”
By contrast, self-identifying communities may have paid staff, selective membership and inadequate bylaws that lack restrictions on political campaign contributions. Critics say the rewrite is a power grab to bolster Eudaly’s support base and campaign coffers.
Critic Allen Field calls the code change a violation of public involvement requirements.
“For a bureau whose mission is citizen engagement, Civic Life is doing a poor job. Not only were NAs not notified of the code rewrite, they have no chance to publicly comment on it prior to Council presentation.”
The rewrite is slated to go to Council in early September, a time when residents are distracted by summer’s end and back to school. Many NAs do not meet in August.
Field says OCCL ignored a Council directive that emerged from a 2016 Audit recommending NAs’ sphere be enlarged, not diminished.
“The code change proposal runs counter to the directive to ‘support and broaden’ neighborhoods’ diversity outreach,” he says.
(After the directive, Rhee removed the word neighborhood from the former Office of Neighborhood Involvement, ONI, renaming it the Office of Community and Civic Life.)
The discretionary power Rhee has been granted, and by default, her manager Eudaly, alarms neighborhood leaders. The rewrite gives the bureau power to pick and choose which organizations the City recognizes.
Activist John Laursen says the rewrite could favor self-interest groups that represent .2 percent of the population and have a single focus while ignoring NAs that take all comers and address a variety of issues.
The Code Committee, hand-selected by Rhee, worked unobserved until it was feted with dinner and gifts in June. It returned in July, approved the “spirit” of the code to expand diversity and granted staff carte blanche over final wordsmithing. A source says the outcome was fixed before the Committee convened.
SE Resident and Committee member Linda Nettekoven, one of two votes against rewrite adoption, commends the group’s inclusivity aspirations, but cautions that the code would leave much of Portland’s future in Bureau hands. She says the process felt incomplete and failed to explore successful ways other communities and governments engage.
Nettekoven says Portlanders understand that vitality comes from diversity, adding most would like to be part of a bigger effort toward greater community engagement, not less City transparency.
“A process I hoped would bring Portlanders together,” she said, “left us more divided.”
South Tabor resident Pete Forsyth says OCCL is misrepresenting NAs as elitist when in fact they guarantee every resident standing to engage with the City.
“I’m all for organizations that represent specific demographics, but forcing organizations to compete for the same pool of funds will lead to counterproductive conflict.”
Forsyth lists NA contributions that include advocating for safe streets, parklands and cleaner air and sustainability plus scrubbing graffiti, rehabilitating drug houses and hosting events.
A positive upshot of charges that NAs are not representative, is that neighbors are more mindful of their demographics and reaching out to under-represented residents to reduce what Rhee calls participation “barriers”.
Ideas surfacing to Keep Portland Neighborly include varying times and locales of meetings and events, making them more accessible to renters and working folk. Some multi-lingual neighborhoods provide translators.
Concerned about inclusivity of her SE neighborhood, singled out for its whiteness, Stewart researched MTNA’s board composition and found it mirrored the community with Caucasians slightly under-represented.
The code, she laments, reads like a badly-written mission statement. “Good ideals are buried in word salad.”
Some marginalized Portlanders say they don’t feel welcome at NAs. What nonparticipants overlook is the thousands of hours volunteers put into Neighborhood Associations that are only as effective as those who show up.
Editor Note: Because of the significance of this issue, readers are encouraged to contact Commissioners to request a vote delay on Code Change 3.96 until the public can review and weigh in on the rewrite.