By Midge Pierce
The fate of the city’s Neighborhood Associations continues to shift following Commissioner Chloe Eudaly’s threats to Council colleagues for their refusal to support a controversial code proposal.
The proposal would have gutted Portland’s nationally recognized community engagement system. NAs are funded by Coalitions under Eudaly’s Bureau of Civic and Community Life (OCCL aka Civic Life).
Calls for Eudaly’s ouster, or at least reassignment to another bureau, may prompt the proposal’s overhaul.
Outrage surged after Willamette Week’s publication of Eudaly’s emails warning fellow Commissioners she would damage their reputations if they failed to back the change.
Since the backlash, Eudaly indicated she would work with colleagues on a code that looks “very different than it does now.”
Positioned as a way to bring under-represented groups to the public influence table, the initial draft released in July by Eudaly’s committee omitted mention of NAs, which are currently code-protected groups eligible for funding, landuse notifications and fee waivers.
While the draft has been modified to list NAs, code objections linger over its lack of procedures to ensure transparency, nondiscrimination and fair organizational selection criteria.
NA leaders call the rewrite an aspirational mission statement, not a code.
Under Eudaly’s watch, OCCL is riddled with charges of hostility, miscommunication, misrepresentations, divisiveness and, above all, dismantling democratic practices.
Her extraordinary threats to colleagues follow her charges that NAs are enclaves of racist, white, Colonial-style obstructionists, views frequently echoed by her OCCL Director Suk Rhee.
At this writing, neither Eudaly nor Rhee had apologized for breaking trust with their communities.
Letters and op-eds praise the plan’s vision to expand the pool of groups that receive funding and official City recognition. Criticism rises from the proposal’s lack of accountable procedures.
Lack of operational structure is a key reason that two members of the Code Change Committee declined to endorse the draft.
Their “Minority Report” says the proposal largely ignored a 2016 audit recommending strengthening support of NAs and helping their diversity outreach.
Co-authors Linda Nettekoven and Hilary Sundeleaf Mackenzie said the code severely limits “the very goals of increased community engagement it set out to expand.”
The authors caution that OCCL is preparing to restructure Coalition offices and funding mechanisms.
They describe their committee experience as well-intentioned but highly flawed with inadequate meeting minutes, no acknowledgement of NA contributions to the City and no serious attempt to alert NAs to the Committee’s work. Failure to inform NAs of code change procedures is a sore point with leaders who see it as a pattern of OCCL abandoning its public service responsibilities.
As pushback mounts, so do OCCL pitch meetings. At East Portland Community Center last month, Rhee blamed NA leaders, all volunteers, for not deducing that event notices are posted on OCCL’s website.
Addressing how OCCL’s changes will translate at other bureaus that currently inform NAs about landuse, transportation, infrastructure and livability issues, code project manager Sabrina Wilson said multi-bureau meetings are a next step in the change process.
Staffers spoke of concessions already made to the original draft. In addition to now listing the ninety-five neighborhoods, they pledged that NAs will retain current benefits and a phrase was deleted that granted the Director sole authority to select organizations for official recognition.
Concern remains about a sunset clause that would allow the City to cease NA recognition after two years.
In an op-ed for The Oregonian, Rhee wrote that NAs would be recognized “until more equitable systems are adopted.” Relying on current neighborhood networks “distorts the distribution of influence,” she said.
Amid speculation that Coalitions could go unfunded in 2020, Rhee said budgets hinge on the City’s long-term financial obligations.
In response to fears that bidding processes would pit organizations against each other, Rhee said “no-bid contracts of the last forty-five years” must stop. Regarding open meeting rules, she said “If NA’s like open meetings they can continue,” adding that going after violators was not a good use of OCCL’s time.
Asked how new groups would be held accountable, she deflected that inclusivity is the measure of success.
As neighbors pushed for clarity and to preserve their positions of influence, a Mt. Scott-Arletta resident said, “Don’t push out the citizens who built this City.”
SE Uplift (SEUL) has yet to take a position on the Civic Life Code Change. Opinions were split at a September board meeting. SEUL is SE liaison with Civic Life.
The code conversation, jammed into the meeting’s last thirty minutes, launched with past chair Terry Milton-Dublinski praising the “amazing job” recently resigned SEUL Director Molly Mayo did setting the coalition up for the code change and future bidding for funds.
During Mayo’s three-year tenure she diversified the Board’s neighborhood representation by adding at-large members and special interest groups.
Before her departure, she issued a newsletter heavy with support for the Code Change, ostensibly setting herself up for a position at OCCL.
Milton-Dublinski’s remarks were followed by a Brentwood-Darlington resident’s call for an ethics investigation of Eudaly.
Sam Noble of Mt. Tabor questioned the efficacy of taking adversarial positions since SEUL gets its money from OCCL.
From the back of the room came an expletive, followed by remarks by an at-large member about privileged white dominance.
“People with absolute power are arguing about absolute power,” he said, adding they don’t want their rights taken away.
“What about those of us who haven’t had rights? Marginalized people get tired of these conversations. There’s a whole world happening outside of NAs.”
Staff jumped in with reminders that the new code should have an equity matrix. They claim that only 3-5% of Portlanders are engaged in NAs, leaving 97% involved in other “avenues.”
The statements left a first time attendee stunned by what she perceived as staff’s anti-NA sentiment.
Richmond’s Allen Field spoke of the 2016 Audit’s goal to add groups to the participatory mix, not dismantle the system. He said OCCL disregarded an earlier Community Connect process that provided an effective roadmap for adding diversity.
South Tabor’s Pete Forsyth cited the code committee’s sincerity, but reminded SEUL that the lack of code guidelines could be a recipe for corruption.
Throughout the City, code critics admit NAs may not be perfect, but stress they are the best tool for civic interaction given Portland’s at-large Commission form of government.
Leaders say the all-volunteer NA system cannot force groups to engage. “You have to show up to participate,” said an observer.
Added another, “Complaining that neighborhood associations don’t represent you is like complaining about democracy when you don’t vote.”
Dissonance on Code Change
Commissioner Eudaly’s bullying and tantrums became legendary this summer when she stormed out of a neighborhood-sponsored art show after disparaging neighbors as barriers to change.
At a City Council meeting, she curtly dismissed longtime SE activist Mary Ann Schwab’s objections to losing neighborhood voices in Code Change 3.96.
After a neighborhood meeting, Eudaly’s policy director was apparently not admonished for texting that neighborhoods should be put in their place because they had too much power and privilege.
The situation came to a head when Eudaly threatened Commissioners if they did not back her attempts to scuttle the existing Neighborhood Association public engagement system.
Her attacks on Commissioner Amanda Fritz were particularly pointed. Eudaly declared OCCL was mismanaged when Fritz ran the bureau under the moniker The Office of Neighborhood Involvement, aka ONI.
Eudaly cited ONI’s forty-five years of “inequitable investment in civic engagement”, a reference to Portland’s funding of Coalitions that provide financial support to NAs.
She implied Fritz delivered the first blow by offering code remedies Eudaly found “insulting.”
In her email, she told Commissioners that it could get “uglier” if they didn’t uphold her agenda.
“I have barely begun to rally support,” Eudaly continued. “You may have noticed I’m really good at rallying support.”
The threats were followed by a somewhat conciliatory Facebook post and hints that more code change adjustments would be forthcoming.