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Is the city about to end the authorized neighborhood channel for citizen input on city operation..?

DAVID F. ASHTON - Gathered to discuss the Portland Office of Community and Civic Lifes Committee 3.96 recommended code changes are (from left): BDNA Equity & Inclusion Committee Chair Meg Van Buren; BDNA Board Member Pam Hodge; WNAs Southeast Uplift Delegate Anna Weichsel; and BDNA Land Use Committee Chair Stephenie Frederick. When the City of Portland's former Office of Neighborhood Involvement (ONI) rushed an "emergency" measure to the Portland City Council to change its name to the "Office of Community and Civic Life" (OCCL) on the afternoon July 18, 2018 – that turned out not to be the only thing that the office's relatively-new Director, Suk Rhee, and that City Commissioner Chloe Eudaly, had in store for the Bureau, or for the residents of Portland.

Later last year, as former ONI personnel were all being replaced, OCCL set up a hand-picked 25-member committee, officially called "Committee 3.96", to write new wording for City of Portland Code 3.96 – the section of the law which deals with the Bureau's, and the city's, official relationship with Portland's 95 neighborhood associations.

"I asked to be on this committee, but I never heard back from them," said Allen Field, a Board member of the Richmond Neighborhood Association, who has been sounding a clarion call to other neighborhood associations about the unpublicized changes now proposed for Portland Code 3.96.

"Although I signed up for e-mail notifications from OCCL about their committee meetings, neighborhood associations weren't notified," Field said. "The May and June committee meetings I attended were a sham; no public input was allowed."

Neighborhood associations in Portland, for decades, have been granted the right to convey opinions and recommendations on city matters from their own districts – the only organized "citizen feedback system" Portland has. The city does not have to act on any of this feedback, but is supposed to consider it.

Even if that recognition is removed, many if not most of the volunteer-led neighborhood associations may continue in existence in some form – but they would have no standing before, or support from, the city government.

Woodstock takes a stand

After members of the Woodstock Neighborhood Association met at their July Board meeting about the proposed code languages changes, Chair Sage Jensen shared with THE BEE her Board's thoughts about why it opposes the current Code 3.96 draft language.

"The Woodstock Neighborhood Association believes that creating a strong sense of community starts at the grassroots level, and is fundamental to building a strong, vibrant, and equitable Portland," Jenson began. "The proposed changes to the City of Portland's Office of Community and Civic Life do very little to promote community-building amongst historically underrepresented members of the community – but rather, it further fractures and divides Portland at the very grassroots level it was built upon, by 'gutting' the vital community-building our city's 95 neighborhood associations have accomplished."

The WNA Board agrees that their association and others do need to evolve with the communities they represent, if they have not already been doing so. "However, the proposed changes lack specific structure or direction for incorporating voices from marginalized and/or minority communities.

"As the Board of WNA, we are saddened that our city leaders have chosen to abandon our neighborhood organizations, rather than supporting and working alongside everyone in the community … [to] bring more voices to the table, versus 'dismantling the table'," Jenson said.

Concerned about land use standing

Although the Eastmoreland Neighborhood Association (ENA) Board of Directors has discussed the code change proposal, ENA Chair Rod Merrick told THE BEE that it has not yet settled on an official stance on it.

Merrick pointed out that land use issues have long been a concern in Eastmoreland. "Speaking just for myself, the new code [proposal] leaves the neighborhood association's role in reviewing land use and advising the City in other matters – codified elsewhere – in limbo.

"Ms Rhee is facile with the current angry and divisive rhetoric of exclusion, elitism, racism, and sexism; [and identifying] older voters and homeowners as obstacles to a brighter, equitable future," commented Merrick. "But the likely result of this aspirational and insubstantial code rewrite will be to further disenfranchise all of those for whom Ms. Rhee claims to speak – except those, like her hand-picked committee of 25, [who are] likely to echo her agenda."

Statements such as those aside, some volunteers from Inner Southeast neighborhood associations have been gathering to discuss informally the code change effort at the Office of Community & Civic Life.

One such conversation took place at a mid-July roundtable discussion in Woodstock's First Cup Coffeehouse, at which representatives from the Brentwood-Darlington (BDNA) and Woodstock (WNA) neighborhood associations gathered to discuss the code change proposal and process.

THE BEE was there, and the four participants made it clear they were speaking only for themselves, and not making official statements on behalf of their respective neighborhood associations.

Calls for support of neighborhood associations

"It's important for people to know where our goals coincide [among neighborhood associations and the OCCL] – in that Portland has a very complicated history around culture, race, identity, fairness, and justice – and, in this context, we are in support of pursuing the same goals as the OCCL is laying out here," remarked BDNA Equity & Inclusion Committee Chair Meg Van Buren. "If we understood why the OCCL is proposing this change; if they were to work with the neighborhood associations to more fully support our outreach to disenfranchised communities, it would be a much healthier way to approach this."

BDNA Board Member Pam Hodge spoke up, "I would welcome help from the city in connecting our neighborhood association with other identity-based groups, so we may partner collaboratively; however, I feel strongly that neighborhood associations should continue to be recognized by the city of Portland, and in legally binding code language, as they are today.

"Other civic organizations that may also be recognized by the city in the future should be held to the same standards set forth in city code, including requirements for open meetings, public records, and non-discriminatory practices."

It concerned her, Hodge said, that in the Portland Auditor's independent performance audit of ONI – now OCCL – was highly critical of the Bureau, but not the neighborhood associations, which she remarked, "seem now to be under attack. In my mind, any proposal to delete references to neighborhood associations in the code is an attack. Code language is important in ensuring that neighborhood associations are legally recognized by City government."

Decries process as secretive

BDNA Land Use Committee Chair Stephenie Frederick commented that while the OCCL's committee held "community conversations" with four groups, according its official report – 12 Hispanic participants at one meeting, 45 Slavic-Russian language speakers at another, and "30-40 Vietnamese" at a third; and, that "thirty-four people attended" a "community dialogue" held at the Somali American Council of Oregon – not one "conversation" was held with any neighborhood association groups.

"The process leading up to this new code language has been secretive," Frederick said. "I feel that a more professional approach would have been meet with neighborhood associations, and tell us what they want to have the [neighborhood associations] do."

Finds City Club comments upsetting

After attending the Portland City Club meeting on July 12, Frederick said the comments of OCCL Director Suk Rhee were "discomforting". "Asked how her Bureau would accomplish the very general goals that she has laid out, she they would 'work within existing city Structures'," Frederick reported.

When questioned about how a draft of the recommended code changes included removing all mention of neighborhood associations, and deleting requirements that these groups follow "open meetings" and public records laws, Frederick said that Rhee appeared to become flustered and angry, and replied that that this was a "false question".

Frederick said that she has long valued Portland's recognized neighborhood association structure which has been in place for decades. "So, to think all of our neighborhood associations may be losing our standing, I'm very unhappy and upset."

'Trust us', OCCL asks

The vagueness in the code section's new language was particularly concerning, Brentwood-Darlington's Hodge said, due to the number of what were essentially management issues brought to light in the City Auditor's report. "It is as if the OCCL is now saying 'Just trust us, we will flesh out the proposed code language in future contract and grant requirement criteria.' Given their track record, we see no reason for the city to further empower the OCCL, at the expense of neighborhood associations and other civic groups."

Up for a quick vote

Also of concern, said Hodge, is that the Portland City Council is apparently set to vote on this code change immediately following the Labor Day holiday, on September 3, despite requests from neighborhood associations and district coalitions to slow down.

"On July 1, the Southeast Uplift Board of Directors drafted a resolution recommending that the OCCL allow 45 days from the date that the Office publishes their final proposed Code language changes, before the Portland City Council is to vote to adopt or reject them." But it does not appear that will happen.

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