By Midge Pierce
If you value public input on landuse, transportation, infrastructure and livability, thank Neighborhood Association pushback for postponement (and perhaps reconsideration) of a City Council vote on a controversial code change that would erode Portland resident’s City Hall influence. No reschedule date has been confirmed.
The code revision instigated by City Commissioner Chloe Eudaly and her Office of Community and Civic Life (OCCL) would disengage the system that officially connects neighborhoods with City government and provides a pipeline for policy notifications.
Eudaly and her OCCL Director Suk Rhee claim the new code would bring affinity groups with more diversity to the public participation table, albeit without specified standards for open meetings, transparency and accountability.
Their approach has been punishing. In public presentations, Eudaly and OCCL have labeled Portland’s ninety-five Neighborhood Associations as racist, elitist, discriminatory organizations that do not represent all Portlanders.
Eudaly has slammed NAs for putting up barriers to inclusion of marginalized groups and Rhee says the new code, developed by her handpicked committee, is needed because of Portland’s history of white privilege and oppression.
What OCCL fails to acknowledge is that NAs represent residents of every stripe including renters, homeowners, and business proprietors on issues from safety and cleanup to affordable housing. No one is excluded from NAs.
The current system ensures that all have a voice in civic affairs within an organizational framework that follows guidelines of inclusiveness and non-discrimination.
A majority of NAs say they too seek more participation by under-represented residents. Language and cultural barriers, not neighborhood discrimination, can make it difficult for some groups to participate. NAs need help strengthening outreach efforts which, leaders say, was the premise of a code rewrite directive by City Council to OCCL, then known as the Office of Neighborhood Involvement (ONI).
Instead, the proposal by a bureau charged with expanding public engagement, limits neighborhood engagement.
Critics say the Bureau is playing the racial card to mask its true intent of stifling neighborhood voices on issues of growth and development. Outrage grew as OCCL twisted narratives, blaming media and NAs for misrepresentations, misunderstandings and lies. As a pundit said, Eudaly poked a sleeping bear.
Damage control went into high gear after The Oregonian published a text revealing the unbridled disdain of Eudaly’s policy director toward what she considers privileged NA members (see Text Reveals True Colors sidebar below). The text paralleled Eudaly’s curt dismissal of longtime activist Mary Ann Schwab as she expressed code change concerns during an August City Council meeting.
After the text debacle, OCCL staff shifted its pitch with promises that the code change would not rob neighborhoods of influence. In its efforts to wrestle back control, it reposted a survey originally discounted because too many respondents were Caucasian.
At a South Tabor NA meeting, OCCL’s Sabrina Wilson said the media was responsible for “misinformation” about a “robust community engagement experience.”
Not true, countered NAs claiming they were never informed of the code change and only learned of the proposal when news leaked about a vote by OCCL’s committee stacked with anti-NA bias.
That vote granted significant power to the bureau director to choose which community groups deserved official roster recognition.
Some SE NAs aim to bridge Eudaly’s wedge politics. The slogan “Keep Portland Neighborly” is going viral with a website describing accomplishments that have made Portland better for all residents. (see bit.ly/2ZpCjDV)
Another positive outcome of the controversy is that NAs have upped their outreach efforts. (See Summertime and the Livin’ Is Easy on cover this issue.)
Pete Forsyth, head of the South Tabor NA, takes the high road. He lauds the code committee’s goal of broadening participation while urging OCCL to support and expand neighborhood outreach, not breach it.
“I unequivocally value the work of the committee. It’s good aspiration that most Portlanders want to honor.” He says OCCL should build on the Committee’s work by adding the transparency and accountability missing from the proposed code revisions.
As the code moves slowly toward City Council without clear standards and practices, it also fails to provide restrictions on political contributions.
Wilson admitted the new code does not follow former ONI open meeting rules. Director Rhee consistently dodges questions about group selection and how guidelines might be implemented.
Outspoken critic Allen Field says that, without guidelines for incoming affinity groups, the new code will cause mass confusion and allow politically-based organizations to inject undo influence over City Commissioners.
“Instead of adding seats, they are taking influence away from a majority of Portlanders. One bureaucrat with decision power over all public voices and no accountability is simply wrong.”
Of additional concern to SE NAs is the language in a SE Uplift newsletter that is decidedly pro-Code. Since the board has yet to take a position, observers say the language chills thoughtful code consideration.
Other challenges remain. Youth activist Sabina Urdes of the Lents Neighborhood Association says code goals sound good, but without neighborhood assigned staff, execution is doomed.
“How are you going to serve more people when we (NAs) are not being served?”, Urdes said.
Field laments that OCCL is no longer a service-oriented entity as it pulls back from Good Neighbor agreements, neighborhood mediation services and community safety activities.
Urbanist Michael Mehaffy and other critics say the Eudaly-Rhee tactics are a threat to Democracy. They call the bureaucrats’ “czar-like” behavior, pitting community groups against each other, more fitting for demagogues than a bureau charged with neighborhood relations.
The City’s 2008 Community Connect Report concluded: “A strong neighborhood system means a stronger and more resilient Portland.” According to critics, the code change goes in the opposite direction.