By Midge Pierce
Score a success for neighbors seeking to retain a pipeline to City Hall. Postponement of a code change vote that could have upended Portland’s renowned Neighborhood Association (NA) system signals opportunity for Portlanders to find common ground for civic participation by under-represented groups – a goal shared by neighborhoods and special interest groups alike.
Despite narratives to the contrary, NA members have declared support for diversity in public engagement policies. What they find objectionable is the code revision process under Commissioner Chloe Eudaly’s Office of Community and Civic Life (OCCL).
The code proposal, considered by many the most impactful in decades, was originally slated for a mid-November Council vote. Instead, Eudaly floated a Resolution for a multi-bureau workforce to reconsider agency obligations to neighborhoods. The Resolution would delay the code vote for one year and extend three more years of funding to the Coalitions that support NAs, continuity important to SE Uplift (SEUL) in filling its vacant director position.
Eudaly pledged to bring the Resolution to Council vote early this month. The delay is generally considered a Hail Mary fix of a draft process that failed to follow codified requirements.
While Eudaly professes inclusion, NA members claim they were deliberately excluded from full participation in the rewrite. The original draft contained no mention of NAs as officially recognized public engagement entities. After pushback, the document was amended to include NAs.
Regardless of shared visions of expanded participation, the process has split into pro and anti-code factions.
Critics assail the absence of guidelines for recognition of self-identity groups that lack transparency, standards and practices such as open meetings, rules of order and bylaws. OCCL Director Suk Rhee counters that “voluntary” practices providing “flexibility” to marginalized groups are sufficient.
At the November hearing, both sides packed an auditorium in Albina’s Self-Enhancement Center that continues to mentor minority youngsters in the gentrifying neighborhood. Eudaly started with comments about an inequitable system of neighborhood privilege, followed by pro-code presentations by Native American, disability and other groups that feel pushed to the margins.
Code supporters implored urgency passing a policy that determines who influences the City on landuse, housing and public expenditures. A Communities of Color Coalition speaker testified that NAs “horde power” and foster xenophobia.
Former SEUL Director Molly Mayo solidified her anti-NA stance by equating current neighborhood power structures with racism. Cully NA reps broke rank with most neighborhoods by calling for immediate code passage to prevent continued disenfranchisement.
Speakers favoring delay urged a deliberative process involving all stakeholders. Several pushed oversight of the multi-bureau workforce by “someone other than Eudaly.”
SE resident Allen Field testified that OCCL has had a fifty percent turn over under Eudaly’s watch and is ill-equipped to restore trust or develop a citywide policy.
Others claimed her characterization of NAs as elitist creates an “us against them” atmosphere. One called Eudaly’s behavior “Czar-like.”
Another lamented Eudaly’s missed opportunity to unify sides over mutual support for more minority participation. He said Eudaly scapegoated NAs for everything wrong with the City and “diminished, divided and denigrated neighborhoods,” rather than bringing factions together.
NE resident Al Ellis said, “Had NAs been involved from the get-go, we’d be working together right now.”
Before the Resolution was presented last month, SEUL’s board struggled to reconcile the Coalition’s diversity mission with the rewrite’s flaws. They voted against the code change “as written,” then took a second vote to add a statement supporting the proposal’s inclusivity “aspirations.”
With the death knell for NAs dispelled for now, the group Keep Portland Neighborly seeks to bridge divide with its “All Welcome, All Together, For All Portlanders” slogan. The group affirms the need for reform, but says the Resolution is not ready for December adoption.
South Tabor’s Pete Forsythe says the group seeks greater clarity of roles and accountability in the code, plus checks, balances and acknowledgement of NAs role in a City that elects its Council at large.
A Resolution amendment circulating from the Communities of Color Coalition has acknowledged that NAs should be included in Coalition contract extensions along with cultural and affinity groups. More at: bit.ly/2DcpRyQ.
Dismayed that time ran out at the Resolution pitch before all testimony was heard, longtime neighborhood advocate John Laursen later said, “Claims of diversity are subterfuge for the real goals to stop squeaky wheels from challenging city policies on growth, transportation and land use.”
Watchdogs have been on alert since the word “neighborhood” was purged from OCCL’s name (it used to be the Office of Neighborhood Involvement) and neighborhood liaison staff members were fired.
Recently, Neighborhood Watch programs were replaced with a confusing community “together” mission that seems to hold residents, rather than police, responsible for city safety. Even Neighborhood Clean-ups are relabeled Community Clean-ups to allow identity groups to compete for scarce resources like dumpsters and dumping fees. Words, warns observers, have real world consequences.
Since November’s testimonial time ran out, comment will be continued at this month’s special hearing. The public should also email comments to City Council members.