Portland civic engagement changes spark neighborhood debate
For all the talk of a civic war, the appearance in Multnomah Village of the Portland city official who has enraged some neighborhood activists was muted but civil.
Suk Rhee, director of Portland's Office of Civic and Community Life (formerly known as the Office of Neighborhood Involvement), spoke to about 75 people at the monthly meeting of the Multnomah Neighborhood Association, Tuesday, Sept. 10. She spent more than an hour explaining why she's trying to make engagement easier for people who have felt left out of the process. Her office, which her staff prefers be called Civic Life, is rewriting the rules that were first laid down 45 years ago recognizing the role of neighborhood associations in how Portland is governed.
The rewrite initially dropped any mention or recognition of neighborhood associations, district coalitions and business districts, drawing an angry reaction from hundreds of volunteers across the city. A "summit" of more than a hundred of them was held in late July in the same auditorium in which Rhee spoke.
That anger was stoked by reports in the Oregonian that the director of policy for Portland City Commissioner Chloe Eudaly, who's in charge of Rhee's office, had sent a text reading, "We need our neighborhood associations in their place. They get too much power and voice."
Jamie Duhamel, the policy director, apologized but the damage was done.
"Are we unhappy with the neighborhood associations? No," said Winta Yohannes, policy adviser for Eudaly. "Neighborhood associations, we know you want to work with diverse neighborhoods. It is the job of the bureau to make that happen. Our responsibility to you is to make sure we know you exist," she said.
Rhee got a lukewarm reaction to her presentation, which was interrupted only occasionally by raised voices from the crowd. The applause at the end was polite.
Mike Linman, on the board of the Maplewood Neighborhood Association, said Rhee's efforts to explain her vision of engaging those who haven't felt welcome in the past were, "Too little too late. I think the problem is the cake is already baked."
Two key questions from the audience: Under the new code, would there still be money for the neighborhood association system? And why was there no open meeting or public records rules referred to in the code changes?
Portland's budget this year allocates $3.1 million to district coalitions, which in turn fund neighborhood associations. Rhee would not commit to that level of funding for the next fiscal year.
"No commitment for 2020," she said. "That's part of the budget process and I can't make a commitment for a budget not adopted."
As for the code not including open meeting and public record rules, Rhee said, "Telling groups how to operate is not important and procedures are not a priority."
She spent several minutes addressing the concern that, under the proposed code, city agencies such as the transportation and environmental services bureaus no longer would have to notify neighborhood associations about plans to tear up streets or replace old sewer lines. To comply with the current code, the Bureau of Environmental Services had set up an informational kiosk outside the hall to tell neighbors about an upcoming year-long sewer project.
The hearing included occasional grumbling from the crowd. Rhee says she was asked by the Multnoamh Neighborhood Association to ask for questions before her presentation and wrote them on large sheets of white paper. That didn't make sense to some. "Maybe we should do the presentation first," suggested one person, while another shouted, "Questions first, presentation later. Why?" One woman's loud comment, "It's all just political speak!" But that was about as rowdy as things got.
The man who posed the question about budget resources, Gary Berger of the Hillside Neighborhood Association in Northwest Portland, said he wasn't satisfied with Rhee's answer. "This whole thing is not well thought through. When they try to implement their vision — more diverse groups engaging with the city — they will be woefully short on resources and it will become greatly diluted and ineffective."
Linman of Maplewood said afterward that he's concerned the 25 members of the committee who approved the proposed code changes had no idea what neighborhood associations actually do. "Literally, the most exciting thing I did on the Parks Committee was put on a movie in the park this summer ("Missing Link," April Hill Park, Aug. 24). And we celebrated the fact that Maplewood neighborhood had the No. 1 fewest sidewalks in Portland until they finished the new sidewalk on Vermont from 45th to 52nd," he said.
The proposed code changes are still being worked on. The Portland City Council will consider the completed version as well as the fate of the neighborhood association system and the future for new groups seeking recognition during a three-hour hearing starting in City Hall at 5p.m. Thursday Nov. 14.
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