Neighborhood volunteers are dismayed and some are downright angry at the way a city commissioner and a bureau director have described them: white, home-owning elites intent only on preserving their own property.
The description is especially galling to volunteers who have worked for traffic and safety improvements, parks upgrades, school projects, neighborhood clean-ups, organizing for disaster preparedness and working on safety improvements at a seniors’ public housing building.
Last year, the city Office of Community and Civic Life (formerly the Office of Neighborhood Involvement) and a 25-member committee appointed by director Suk Rhee began rewriting City Code 3.96. As currently written, the code includes the authorizing language for the city’s neighborhood system and directs the office to develop regulations for neighborhood associations, business district associations and district coalitions of those groups.
However, the committee rewrites have eliminated references to neighborhood associations. Commissioner Chloe Eudaly, who oversees the Civic Life office, said neighborhood associations won’t be eliminated but the rewrite is an effort to make Portland more inclusive by opening up processes for groups representing ethnic, racial, religious, sexual and other minorities.
Rhee’s office organized meetings with a variety of ethnic and youth groups to gain their ideas of how to engage with city government. Virtually all said they would welcome information on how to take their concerns and ideas to public agencies and elected officials. However, Northeast neighborhood volunteers who attended a meeting with Rhee and a facilitator earlier this year said they didn’t feel they had a two-way conversation. One commented that Rhee seemed to avoid using the word “neighborhood.”
Eudaly abandoned a plan to send proposals to City Council on Sept. 3 because so many groups, including the League of Women Voters, which studied the neighborhood association system in 1973 and 2006, raised questions about the rewrite process.
Instead, the council schedule lists a “special session for Civic Life code change” from 5-8 p.m. Nov. 7. No meeting place is listed.
So far, the rewrites give the Civic Life director authority to determine which groups will be accepted under a revised code. That’s too much power for a city employee overseeing an office established to foster citizen participation, several observers say.
Neighborhood volunteers also complain that they had no notification about meetings of the rewrite committee and most knew nothing about it until last spring. Rhee insists they had notifications. Several neighborhood representatives said they had no opportunity to comment at the meetings when they learned about them. At the start of a session, 10 minutes were allotted for public comment with each speaker determined by lottery and allowed to speak for 60 seconds.
Neighborhood volunteers say they have no objection to reexamining the code and opening processes to other groups. But they do object to the closed process, unfounded accusations against them, and proposals to eliminate requirements for open meetings and record keeping among “recognized” groups.
Those who attended the last meeting in July said the rewrite committee didn’t approve final language but voted to let city staff “wordsmith” a proposal to go to council.
The proposal is available online at www.portlandoregon.gov. A survey to determine public feedback is at www.surveymonkey.com.
Portland’s current neighborhood association system is intended to give residents an opportunity to participate in city land-use decisions.
Neighborhood associations are required to hold open meetings, provide public notice, and post agendas and minutes to keep residents informed even if they don’t attend meetings, the letter continues. However, that’s not required in the draft language.
“If these requirements that promote transparency are no longer required or effective, then what will be required for community groups to be officially recognized by the city?” the league asks.
The letter continues: “If the current system isn’t working for community members, the league is interested in understanding why and how new systems would be better.”
Bob Dobrich, president of the Irvington Community Association, said neither Rhee nor rewrite committee members seemed to know anything about neighborhood groups and how they operate. When he attended a committee meeting, he said, “Falsehoods were being discussed as truths with no way to refute them.”
“There’s an overriding theme of good and evil, and they’re good and neighborhood associations are evil,” said Dean Gisvold, who served on the original Model Cities board in the 1970s. That’s when North/Northeast neighborhood groups formed to meet federal citizen participation goals for Great Society programs.
More neighborhood associations formed after residents saw how citizen participation worked in the eight Model Cities groups. A code for neighborhood groups was approved after a few years, following more than two dozen public hearings.
Al Ellis, a Beaumont-Wilshire resident who attended a rewrite committee meeting, termed the proposed code changes “platitudes with no specific language because they don’t have a plan. There’s a disconnect from reality.”