New ONI director aims to bring back stability
Commissioner Chloe Eudaly is looking to shake the dust from the city's troubled Office of Neighborhood Involvement, commonly called by its acronym, ONI.
She named Suk Rhee as the new director of the bureau last week, replacing interim director Dave Austin, Eudaly's chief of staff.
Former Director Amalia Alarcon de Morris resigned from the position in March after 11 years.
Rhee starts her new post Aug. 21; her contract and salary are still being finalized.
The Office of Neighborhood Involvement oversees the city's 95 neighborhood associations, and also works in neighborhood crime prevention, graffiti, noise control, marijuana and liquor matters. ONI also recently started a new program called Portland United Against Hate, which will collect data on hate crimes and hate speech and help fashion responses.
Following a particularly scathing city audit last November that said the bureau suffered from poor oversight and a host of other issues, Eudaly worked to make necessary changes when Mayor Ted Wheeler assigned her oversight of the bureau following her election win in November.
The Office of Neighborhood Involvement has a $10.9 million budget and a staff of about 55.
Rhee "has a proven track record when it comes to engaging the community in developing ways to better the lives of all Portlanders," Eudaly wrote in an email to the staff. "She is also a big-picture thinker who will help lead our efforts to improve the ways we connect with and support people across our entire community, especially when it comes to diverse populations and underserved communities."
Rhee served the past 12 years as vice president of strategy and community partnership at Northwest Health Foundation, a Portland nonprofit that serves Oregon and Southwest Washington.
Rhee's resume describes her leading a transformation process at the foundation, resulting in a complete restructuring — including of initiatives, programs, funding, community partnerships, governance structure and staff roles.
"I would love to actually see the Office of Neighborhood Involvement reimagine all of the different forms that residents of the city can participate," Rhee says. "It's through the traditional and available structures that we have, but also could be through new ways of engagement. The city is changing ... the response to the changes we are experiencing, that's within our control."
"Given her experience and (Eudaly's) hard look at the bureau and what it needed, she thought it was important to bring up some stability immediately to the bureau," Austin says. He says there were roughly half a dozen interested or considered for the position, though he was not interested in the permanent job.
Rhee previously attended Richmond Neighborhood Association meetings when she lived in Southeast Portland. She now lives in the Rose City Park neighborhood in central Northeast Portland, but hasn't been involved with the association there.
The search process was conducted a bit differently from other recent bureau head hires — there was no formal job posting and there wasn't a national search or competitive recruitment process (Eudaly is conducting a national search for her other bureau, the Bureau of Development Services).
Instead, Eudaly hosted a community forum and an online survey to see what community members wanted in an ONI director.
Former director Alarcon de Morris was found via a competitive recruitment process when she was selected as director 11 years ago, and Eudaly wanted to go a different route.
Bureau directors are "at-will" employees of the city commissioners who oversee the bureaus.
"ONI is a very different kind of bureau," Austin says. "It's much smaller, it's around community involvement. The commissioner was a small business owner and was a community member, volunteer and organizer for a lot of things, so this bureau has a different need."
"She was going to appoint (vs. completing a national search process) given all the issues that the bureau was facing, including the audit and the mayor-elect's concerns about the bureau," Austin says.
Some neighborhood associations in Portland have endured serious divisions, such as Eastmoreland, where the neighborhood association sank into turmoil over the still-unresolved establishment of a historic district. Montavilla and Laurelhurst neighborhood associations have had heated discussions around how to deal with homelessness.
Adam Lyons, Northeast Coalition of Neighborhoods executive director, is ready for a new director.
"ONI, especially right now, could benefit from just some stability, and somebody who's coming from kind of an empathetic, progressive foundation," he says. "I think that she definitely seems like she has the right fortitude to right this bureau. It's a big challenge, but it's doable."
Rhee seems interested in expanding the way neighbors engage in the city, going beyond things like neighborhood association meetings "where we only get to talk to people in a certain region."
"There might be other issues that neighbors address and residents identify that will need different structure," she says.
Rhee isn't ready yet to describe what those forms may look like.
"They do have to be in service of a vision. And those visions have to be knitted," she says.