Portland's Civic Life Bureau Director Suk Rhee expresses a heartfelt conviction about equity and inclusion in Portland. As one of many neighborhood association leaders, we couldn't agree more with the aspirational values of this being a city where opportunities for civic engagement should abound for everyone.
Underrepresented groups in Portland have not always participated in our democratic system for a number of reasons. That Portland established an internationally renowned neighborhood system based on democratic principles with open meeting requirements, attention to conflict of interest, maintaining records and being wholly transparent is not the reason.
Times and demographics have changed. With these changes, we should review our 40-year-old code and seek ways to improve it.
The 2016 Auditor's Report and City Council's charge to Civic Life and the Code Committee was to improve the system, not dismantle it. Members of the code committee were handpicked, with minimal representation by neighborhoods and with no education of its members about the history of the neighborhood system.
As described in the recent Oregonian article by Gordon Friedman, explicit bias against neighborhood associations exists in the office of Chloe Eudaly who oversees Civic Life. That bias has filtered into the process.
At the outset, this flawed process was poorly messaged and allowed rumors to spread about the dismantling of neighborhood associations. We now know that those rumors were true, although those in Civic Life will say otherwise.
But the truth is in what was written as an update to the code, wherein any reference to standards has been eliminated. Yes, two days before the committee's final vote a confusing and contradictory paragraph that referenced neighborhoods was added and voted upon affirmatively without a full understanding of its meaning by the members themselves.
Civic Life now is scrambling to justify what they themselves cannot explain in a clear and rational way. The Code 3.96 update is not a code. It is a mission statement, and a good one at that, about values, but it is not a code that sets standards about how engagement should work for every group that wants and should have a seat at the table.
Civic Life's proposed changes to Code 3.96 and the process by which it was determined has served to divide our city rather than uniting it. Instead of working together with neighborhood associations to guide them in finding ways to improve diversity and engagement, and to build partnerships with other groups, Civic Life chose to diminish the neighborhood system and fostered a "them versus us" climate across our city.
It is ironic that a Korean TV station just came to Portland to film a documentary about our neighborhood system. When I asked the journalist why Portland, this was the response: "In the Rebirth of Urban Democracy, authored by researchers at Tufts University in 1993, Portland was listed as one of the five best-performing participatory cities in the country. I think the core of Portland participatory democracy is the local government … where citizens are the main force. We would like to introduce the Portland Neighborhood Association, coalition office and city activities as a leading example in a documentary."
City Council should reject the proposed revision and send it back to the drawing board. There should be a new committee with neighborhoods fairly represented, with a public involvement plan, and within the context of a Charter review conversation. Committee members must be educated on the 2016 Auditor's Report, the established Standards, the 2035 Comprehensive Plan Chapter 2, and our public involvement principles.
Let's take the time to get it right for the benefit of everyone across our city!
Stan Penkin is president of the Pearl District Neighborhood Association. He can be reached at pearldistrict.org.
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