New media landscapes have created and empowered 'virtual,' but nonetheless real, communities that must have a rightful and recognized place in the civic forum.

AuthorFor much of the past year an often contentious public debate has swirled around the future of neighborhood associations under a proposed plan for broader, more inclusive civic engagement in Portland.

Now, as the result of an anticipated City Council vote, the plan will go back to the drawing board and then be subjected to public feedback extending not just for months, but for years.

A final City Council decision on code changes implementing some revised plan may not come until 2023, if then.

In the unpredictable politics of these times, 2023 marks an eternity.

However long it takes, the deliberations by public officials and Portland's citizens need to take into account one simple fact: new media landscapes have created and empowered "virtual," but nonetheless real, communities that must have a rightful and recognized place in the civic forum.

Note, too, that we can only imagine what new Internet-empowered "communities" will spring up between now and 2023.

Neighborhood associations, which largely represent property owners (not renters and certainly not the homeless), are just one set of players on a vast new playing field created by communications technology, which is itself constantly changing.

Neighborhood associations emerged out of the strikingly different political/media environment of the late '60s. In that time, the Internet and social media were unheard of. Today, thanks to the communications revolution, huge online constituencies often drive political discourse, empowering communities of interest and identity.

The controversial changes to the City Code proposed earlier this year by the Office of Community and Civic Life (formerly known as The Office of Neighborhood Involvement) reflect this new reality. Today's civic agenda far exceeds the interests of property owners. It includes, as it should have for decades, the needs of beleaguered renters, racial, ethnic, homeless and environmental groups — to name just a few of the more obvious ones.

No question, the importance of place — our physical neighborhoods — needs ongoing recognition. Neighborhoods must have a strong voice in shaping the future. But the city's fixation on place often has ignored or been unaware of the needs of others.

The challenge in this new media environment is to make sure that we are all heard and that we all listen — and listen deeply. As a city, we must address radically diverse needs. No exceptions.

Frankly, with today's overheated and often coarse political discourse, we desperately need a safe place to meet face-to-face, a place governed by mutual respect and civil decorum.

Online media, as we have seen nationally — and, yes, locally — frequently spawn disruptive, rude behavior.

On a personal note, my own experience with neighborhood associations has been mixed.

The requirement that developers take their plans before neighborhood associations often has improved those plans, making them more compatible to the neighborhood.

Association meetings do promote face-to-face relationships. The monthly gatherings often foster longstanding friendships.

But increasingly, I have serious reservations. The very word "neighborhood" is a misnomer. My neighborhood is where my immediate neighbors live. There might be 250 of us including children, cats and dogs. What the city code defines as "neighborhoods" are, in fact, communities.

Hillsdale, where I live, has more than 7,500 residents. It is far larger than many incorporated towns in Oregon. Sublimity, Oregon, for example, is the sublime home to 3,000 souls with their own City Council.

So I heartily welcome the word "community" in the new name "Office of Community and Civic Life." May we in Hillsdale one day have The Hillsdale Community Association.

Also troubling is a recent change that gives neighborhood association boards the authority to overrule neighborhood association members, who are now merely given non-binding "straw vote" to voice their opinions. The change was driven by concerns about liability.

The simple solution would be to require agreement between members and board. If it can't be reached, the matter will be dropped or tabled until board/membership differences can be resolved through collaboration and compromise.

So I welcome the ongoing Community and Civic Life rethinking. My concern is that it may go on so long that it ultimately exhausts itself and dies.

Rick Seifert is the founder of the SW Community Connection and a longtime citizen activist.

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