New rules spark a civic war at City Hall
UPDATE: Suk Rhee, director of the Office of Community and Civic Life, will speak to the Multnomah Neighborhood Association on Sept. 10 at Multnomah Arts Center. Portland's City Council has scheduled a Nov. 14 hearing on proposed changes to the Civic Code.
Official rules that regulate the way the city of Portland shares power with its residents when it comes to making decisions about life in 95 recognized neighborhoods are being rewritten.
Many of those residents, volunteers who are used to being a part of the process when it comes to, let's say, dictating rules for developers, are waging a coordinated counter attack against the proposed revisions.
Some of them organized a summit meeting that attracted more than a hundred activists to the Multnomah Arts Center in July. Others are mobilizing rank and file members of neighborhood associations to challenge the changes. Leaders of the Multnomah Neighborhood association will host Suk Rhee, who heads the office doing the rewriting, on Sept. 10. Countless numbers of citizens are sending letters of protest to members of the City Council, who are expected to confront their concerns and listen to their testimony in October.
Many other residents favor the proposed new set of rules from the Office of Community and Civic Life. Some of those who are active in community groups based on who they are and what they do, rather than where they live, have spoken out about feeling "unwelcome" and "marginalized" by the rules in the current code, which was approved 14 years ago this August.
That set of rules specifically and repeatedly names neighborhood associations and describes in detail the structure, functions and responsibilities of such groups, of which there are 17 in Southwest Portland. The proposed set of rules doesn't mention neighborhood associations.
Thus the conflict and controversy.
"Currently, the code (3.96) says that for us to recognize you, you have to be a neighborhood association, a business district or a neighborhood coalition," said Stephanie Routh of the Office of Community and Civic Life. "In the proposed code, however you choose to organize, whether its across neighborhood, across identities, across issue affinity or across generations, it is our job to find a meaningful pathway to engagement."
Jim Redden of the Portland Tribune reported on July 25: "We need all of us and not just some over others. That is not government's role, to pick winners and losers," office director Suk Rhee told the City Club of Portland on July 12. Rhee also said neighborhood associations would not be abolished, even if they are removed from the code.
Despite such assurances, neighborhood volunteers are worried.
Leslie Hammond is in her second year as president of Southwest Neighborhoods Inc., a district coalition as defined in the current code which works with 17 neighborhood associations. She told the SW Connection she thought revising the code would result in more groups being recognized rather than her group being written out.
"Where people thought we would start this conversation is, 'Here's the neighborhood system. We want to build it and make it more effective and build up partnerships. But we realize there are other communities out there that need to be involved and that they need resources.' So how does the city put into place the resources necessary to do effective outreach?" Hammond asked.
As August turns to September, the battle lines are pretty clearly drawn. On one side, Commissioner Chloe Eudaly, who's in charge of the Office of Community and Civic Life, is trying to line up two more votes to get a new, slimmed-down Code 3.96 approved by the City Council. Her support comes from citizens who think the neighborhood associaiton system needs a shake up. On the other side, working to save and improve that system, is a small army of neighborhood activists accustomed to the long hours and lobbying it takes to fight city hall.
There's no clear answer to the question of how many people "participate" in their local neighborhood association in Southwest Portland. Mainly because there's no clear definition of "participation."
Does that mean going to a monthly meeting, reading the SW News, buying a used book in Hillsdale or supporting efforts for safer streets? It depends on who you talk to.
Suk Rhee, director of the Office of Community and Civic Life, chose a narrow definition of participation when she said on Oregon Public Broadcasting radio, "Last time we checked and had a chance to ask the level of participation in the neighborhood associations in 2008 in the Community Connect report, estimates were about two-tenths of 1% … to me the 1.2% of Portlanders … so it's not what's wrong with neighborhood associations."
Dave Miller, host of OPB's "Think Out Loud," asked Rhee, "Meaning? What does that percentage represent? People who were members of neighborhood associations or went to meetings?"
"It was broadly defined. Engaged. Participating," Rhee replied.
"That's vague and misleading," wrote Susan King in an email to the SW Connection. She's active with the Hayhurst Neighborhood Association and Southwest Neighbors Inc. "How many or what percentage of any group are participating? However that is defined (is hard to estimate). Since there was no definition provided by Rhee her argument is pretty meaningless."
An estimated 0.12% of Portland's population of 583,000 in 2008 would have been fewer than 850 people citywide.
Steph Routh, interim communications coordinator for the Office of Community and Civic Life, said the 0.12% participation number came from a report done in 2008 called Community Connect.
Here's what the report said: "Many people value the work of neighborhood associations (NAs), but participation in NAs is relatively low, with estimates ranging from 1,000-7,000 Portlanders citywide."
Routh emphasized that it also said, "Neighborhood associations rely on the volunteer efforts of a relatively small number of leaders, many of whom are stretched thin, at-risk of burn-out, or on the brink of retirement."
To make the point that some community members have felt marginalized, she cited this finding: "Respondents from under-represented groups in particular tended to define their community in terms of their ethnicity, race, faith, or other social identities (rather than their neighborhood)."
Rhee went on in the OPB radio interview to increase the participation estimate to 2%. "Let's say that percentage is … you could double it or triple it. You would still have the question, 'What about the other 98% of Portlanders who are not coming through this mechanism?'" she said.
For hard participation numbers in Southwest Portland, the SW Connection met with Leslie Hammond and Sylvia Bogert, the president and executive director, respectively, of Southwest Neighborhoods Inc., which is the district coalition for 17 neighborhood groups from Arnold Creek to West Portland Park. Any mention of "district coalition" has been removed in the revised Code 3.96, along with "neighborhood association" and "business district association."
They provided documentation that is sent to the OCCL. They estimated there are 675 "very active" volunteers in Southwest Portland who attend monthly meetings and spend a minimum of four hours per month ("But more like 40") on neighborhood association business. By using the hourly rate used in grant proposals ($21.50), Bogert estimates those volunteers provide $700,000 worth of value each year to where they live.
"To say 2% of the population is active, I think you have to look at the quality and the value and the hard work people are putting into it (neighborhood association) and recognize it," Hammond said. "She (Rhee) says 2% participation. We have proof it was much more than that."
Then there are the vast majority of Southwest Portland residents who will never attend one of their monthly meetings but will take their children to neighborhood association-sponsored events like Movies in the Park, to a National Night Out event, or to the Hillsdale Pancake Breakfast. Perhaps they'll sign up to lobby to get sidewalks built or clean out the garage for Southwest Neighborhood Inc.'s Fall Clean Up.
Southwest Neighborhoods reported to the Office of Community and Civic Life that 27,500 people participated in 402 neighborhood association events in fiscal year 2018-19, which ended June 30. That's for 17 neighborhood associations in Southwest Portland.
Hammond hopes a compromise on Code 3.96 revisions can be reached before October, when the City Council is expected to take up the issue. The Oregonian reported last month that Portland City Commissioner Chloe Eudaly admitted her staff mishandled the process and that a key staffer had ridiculed representatives of neighborhood associations as they testified to City Council on a different topic.
Hammond had this reaction, "It was a disclosure of an attitude in the Commissioner's office that was felt but never clear until those text messages were published."
But she said she hopes Eudaly meant what she said when apologizing for her policy director Jamey Duhamel. "I would hope the commissioner and her staff would try to bring people together to work together rather than seeing neighborhoods as an ineffective partner. We don't want this to be them and us. We want this to be all of us," she said.
Which neighborhood do you live in?
Ask someone who lives in Southwest Portland, "What's your neighborhood?" and you're likely to hear "Multnomah Village" or "over by Fred Meyters," but not the name of one of the 17 officially recognized neighborhoods in Southwest Portland. Here's how you can find out which neighborhood you live in.
Go to www.portlandmaps.com and enter your address. You'll see your neighborhood right away and if you scroll down you can find contact information for you neighborhood association. As Sylvia Bogert, executive director of Southwest Neighborhoods Inc., said, "One of the best effects from all this debate and discussion about the code is that people now know about neighborhoods, right?"
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