By Don MacGillivray
It might be said that Portland’s Office of Community and Civic Life (OCCL) is a Utopian experiment that potentially could save us from a Dystopian present.
Portland has struggled with its coordination of neighborhoods since its inception almost 50 years ago. This expansion of local democracy has received national acclaim, but it has gone through many ups and downs due to the political diversity of its dynamic nature.
OCCL, formerly the Office of Neighborhood Involvement (ONI), is responsible for facilitating city-wide citizen engagement. It has a potpourri of responsibilities including noise control, cannabis regulation, liquor licenses, graffiti control, community safety, neighborhood mediation and various civic engagement functions, as well as overseeing the city’s 95 neighborhood associations.
In recent years, the organization was under the administration of Commissioner Chloe Eudaly. With her departure, OCCL is now managed by Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty.
The Office is positioned to tackle some of Portland’s challenging community problems through the use of an equity lens focusing on the impacts of race and ethnicity. They use collaborative, human-centered approaches to respond to Portland’s urban challenges and to build community.
Recent problems within OCCL began with a city audit in 2017 seriously criticizing the group (then known as ONI). The Executive Director was offered a year’s salary to resign and the new executive director believed she had a mandate to reform Portland’s system of neighborhoods.
Program difficulties developed with the desire to improve the influence of the diversity programs by circumventing established neighborhoods. This became acute when OCCL formed a code revision committee of diverse ethnic leaders to remove important language defining the role of neighborhood associations. Neighborhood leaders opposed this revised code and it was tabled indefinitely.
For the past few years, the city ombudsman has received an unprecedented number of personnel complaints from OCCL, including intimidation, harassment and retaliation that resulted in extreme employee discontent. Last fall, Commissioner Eudaly hired ASCETA, a local consulting firm, to undertake an independent assessment of the Office.
The purpose of the assessment was to clarify the group’s mission and evaluate the health of its work environment. The report included surveys from over 60 percent of the employees as well as interviews with other significant individuals. Released in March, the report documented many behaviors that contributed to the dissonance and dysfunction within the group.
When the media requested the report, the city refused, claiming attorney client privilege. This was overruled by the Multnomah County District Attorney.
The report determined there were serious leadership problems and a lack of support from within the city. The report was intended to help management respond to its problems, but it became clear that major changes would be required.
Five managers including the executive director, Suk Rhee, were deemed responsible and are now gone. Rhee was cited for the poor office morale, intimidation and unsound leadership. Employee complaints occurred throughout her tenure at OCCL and many workers either resigned or were fired.
City commissioner Mingus Mapps, a former employee, was one of the people removed from his job. Rhee’s justification for the situation was that the reform and transformation of the Office required these changes. This transition cost approximately half a million dollars for the assessment process and the severance packages for the director and two managers.
This year on May 20, Michael Montoya became the interim director of the OCCL. He was the strategy, innovation and performance manager in Commissioner Hardesty’s office and has had experience with equity-based programs.
It will take time for the current office to heal, as well as to repair, the many relationships among community organizations. After the stability of the office is reinstated, a new executive director will be hired.
The Southwest Neighborhood Inc. (SWNI) district coalition has recently been closed and is being reorganized under city control. This is due to a financial audit going back over 10 years when a financial manager was convicted of embezzling city funds.
Since then the SWNI has worked to improve and strengthen its financial management system, but the new management of OCCL, uncomfortable with SWNI, asked for an audit.
Over the past few years there were serious disagreements between the SW neighborhoods and the Office over decisions that were unfavorable to Portland’s neighborhoods associations.
The city did not renew the SWNI contract this year and two city employees will now provide equivalent services to SW Portland, making this district the third city-staffed office, instead of operating independently.
In spite of months of organizational difficulties, COVID-19 issues and the largest demonstrations seen in Portland in years, OCCL employees and volunteers continue to make significant contributions in Portland.
It is important to be optimistic about the future and the ability of the organization to provide equitable community and neighborhood support to the many groups and communities in the city.
10 years ago, ONI created a strategic plan known as Community Connect and much of it remains to be implemented. It might be a great way to begin the rebuilding process.