SE 'Code Change' meeting: Heat - but little light
An effort to clarify the City of Portland's Office of Community & Civic Life (OCCL) "Code Change 3.96" project, leaders of the Brentwood-Darlington Neighborhood Association (BDNA) invited the Bureau's Director, Suk Rhee, for a conversation on Tuesday evening, September 24, in the Brentwood Darlington Community Center.Since officials of OCCL have charged they are frequently misquoted in the press, THE BEE recorded the statements made at the meeting, and present them here, verbatim.
Rhee brought with her Commissioner Chloe Eudaly's Policy Advisor Winta Yohannes, and OCCL Code Change Project Manager Sabrina Wilson, to join her on the panel.
BDNA Chair Chelsea Powers, who served as the meeting's moderator, began the meeting with a brief presentation that outlined the efforts to make their neighborhood association inclusive and responsive to all neighbors, with volunteer efforts "providing nearly $100,000 in free labor each year to help the city connect with residents in this geographic location."
OCCL Code Change Project Manager Sabrina Wilson extolled the virtues of their Code Change "process", and stepped through a Code Change presentation.
Surprising many, Commissioner Eudaly's policy advisor Winta Yohannes announced, "These [Code Change] components will still come to [the Portland City] Council, but we're finding there are still conversations we need to have in the community.
"And, in the new Code language and in the conversation that we're going to have, none of this is a zero-sum, you know, a proposition; we're really talking about how we do increase involvement, which will involved in changing the structure," Yohannes went on. "It's not just adding to a current structure; but, to allow for that, and to allow for a more meaningful Counsel conversation. So what you can expect is that on November 14 there will not be a vote on the new Code language ..."The day after this meeting, September 25, Commissioner Eudaly sent out a notice confirming Yohannes' statement. Notwithstanding that OCCL's change of the City Code that would, among other changes, effectively remove the support [and recognized city status] of neighborhood associations, she confirmed that it would not be put to a vote of the Portland City Council in November.Several Southeast Portland neighbors who attended the Brentwood-Darlington meeting shared strong feelings about what was heard – and, what was not said – in it; adding that they had found most replies to their questions to be convoluted – or, at times, incomprehensible.
For example, to a question about the OCCL's Code Change apparently wiping neighborhood associations from the Code, Rhee responded:
"... about adding or deleting groups; I want to make very, very clear that in [the Code Section] '060' only Council can add or delete groups. The administrative rule that'll be presented the same day, whether for discussing on November 14 or later, actually says is 'everyone in the known universe'. These are all the associations we know of, is the coalitions we know of, these are the business districts – everyone we know now is actually presenting to this administrative rule and with this code that they come together.
"So, and those groups have their rights and those privileges preserved," Rhee continued. "The only way we can add or delete to that group is by Council Ordinance. So, there is information out there that only the Bureau Director will be able to add – that is not true. After the current version of the [unintelligible] on our website, only Council can add or delete; I want to be clear about that."
Asked about rules and standards for groups recognized by the city being discontinued, Rhee responded:
"...talking about rules and standards, et cetera; we'll get back to that. Basically our overall response is that this: It's about government reducing as many barriers to participation, especially for volunteer groups that have not had traditional access to government, and so, what we're trying to do is lower all of the barriers as much as we can to civic engagement participation; and we will build them back up, not with barriers, but with eligibility and requirements – as they are needed – particularly when there is money involved, but also when there is something bigger at state.
"But of all the many things that you talked about that you've achieved as a neighborhood association, some of them do not require vetting by City Council or our Bureau – it only requires support. And we should be supportive the [BDNA Hallowe'en] 'Spook-Tacular' event, but we don't know how to run your committee meetings," remarked Rhee. "But if there's money involved, we may want to ask pertinent questions, especially when there's other privileges or even more dollars involved, you'd better believe that the city will provide eligibility and other requirements.
"But in general, we want to say, have you ever seen that question, 'No wrong door?'" continued Rhee. "Government should feel like that, 'no wrong door' – but you've come to the 'right door' to reduce the barriers to civic engagement for all groups; and then, when you get there, we ask what you want to do – then maybe will help you get to this or another place, and at this other place you need may need more vetting. We want to create this 'no wrong door', reducing barriers participation as much as we can; and then when it matters, if it's benefits money or privileges, we will put those screens in those areas. Does that make sense?"
Open letters posted by many neighborhood associations have stated agreement with the effort for their organizations, and the City in general, to better connect with all Portlanders. The question put to Rhee was: "Given that broad consensus, how do you think this became so controversial?"
Rhee began by lambasting the Oregonian, Portland Tribune, and Willamette Week for inaccurate reporting.
"So, if you heard [in news media, flyers, or NextDoor] that the neighbor associations can be dismantled, and the insurance is going to be taken away ... that we don't value you, that's part of the controversy – because sometimes the conversation started, not with us or with the facts, but actually with some scary ideas.
"... I also think we have to ask for whom this is controversial," Rhee continued "For many it is not, and for some I think we have to ... identify and share with us, why it is controversial to them, if most of the time it's prefaced with 'we really value the equity and the social inclusion outcome' that we really want to achieve.
"So, we have to ask for whom it is controversial, because for many it is not, for many people in the neighborhood associations, and within the city is actually told us this is long overdue, this is catching up to reality, and this is actually more of the accurate statement of who we are as Portlanders than what there has been," Rhee said. "I think those are two elements of it; but not all of them."
During the meeting, Woodstock Neighborhood Association Chair Sage Jensen – speaking for herself, not officially for her organization – asserted that, as a group, they agree with "the spirit of the OCCL is trying to do.
"But, while many of us do agree that these changes for equity, inclusion, and diversity need to be made, the way that it is being done is incredibly sloppy," Jensen continued. "The process has not included any feedback from the neighborhood associations that I know of, including the WNA.
"While I want you to take to heart that a lot of us want to see more opportunities for diversity and inclusion in neighborhood associations, and part of this process may be 'Code Change', I think you have to go back and do a better job," Jensen said.
"Thank you for being so honest. We definitely did miss some neighborhood associations in our outreach. And, that is something we're trying to figure out where it is on our [unintelligible] … I apologize to you.
"And, we also have to say, when you look at our survey results, we look at our February [Code Change] meetings, and the actions at our April meeting, we actually saw, because you could look at [unintelligible] results, they're actually on the website with all the results – there were neighborhood associations' perspectives proudly represented there," Rhee asserted, defending the program's inclusion of neighborhood association input. "And so we sought in our survey, and then in all the February [meetings] and the English language gathering at Parkrose, it was almost all neighborhood associations."
Rhee restated that information about the survey and meetings were on their website adding, "On the committee there, are five neighborhood association neighbors, two of them are from the Coalitions."
THE BEE, then checked the "Committee 3.96 Members" biographies, and found that Rhee's statement was problematical regarding "five neighborhood association neighbors". The only member with a specific neighborhood association connection – other than one member admitting to residing within a neighborhood association's boundaries – appeared to be Laura Young, Board Chair of Cully Association of Neighbors. Coalition members listed are former Southeast Uplift Co-Chair Linda Nettekoven, and the Coalition's former Director, Molly Mayo.
"... The Southeast Uplift Director was on the committee, and put it on their Board agenda; and, every Coalition is pushing it out, so, I'm just saying, both: Apologies for missing some or many of you, truly. And, we have seen and benefited from neighborhood association perspectives, because they are through all throughout our data that we took and that we presented, and so please do not completely feel the neighborhood associations were not represented, because, read the data."
Neighbors respond to the meeting
In the days following the meeting several attendees commented on their experience of the two-hour session. In each case, the individual is giving THE BEE their personal opinions and not speaking for any group or organization.
Stephenie Frederick, BDNA Board Member
"After listening to the three panelists make presentations and respond to audience questions, I came away no more edified than I was previously.
"What I saw at the meeting is a desire to destroy a longstanding civic structure without offering any kind of replacement structure or [organizational] standards," said Frederick. "In their official role of geo-connection, the neighborhood associations must continue to abide by public-meeting laws.
"Further, Ms. Rhee promises that OCCL will create detailed processes and policies later on, after City Council adopts the proposed code. Can we rely on an equitable and democratic roll-out, given that, in Section 050, OCCL assigns a huge amount of power to itself? I don't accept Ms. Rhee's promises for a second.
"In summary, that forum served only to confirm my opinion that we are looking at autocratic power-grabbing, not professional management; a messy, sloppy rush to destroy rather than mediate intelligent transition is not acceptable, but that's what's happening,"
Chelsea Powers, BDNA Chair
"Director Rhee's replies at our meeting did not provide any additional clarity. And, after hearing from Rhee, I do not feel neighborhood associations will continue to be supported under the proposed changes.
"I am also still waiting on their answers to neighbors' questions they promised to send us, so we can post them on our website," she added.
"The small tweaks they have made have not altered the Code Change content meaningfully. The lack of clarity on requirements of groups' standards, such as open meeting rules concerning notifications or funding, is extremely concerning, as is how departments within OCCL are being dismantled," Powers said.
"On another note, I am concerned because OCCL is pushing our neighborhood coalitions to support a one year contract extension on short notice."
Pete Forsyth, President, South Tabor Neighborhood Association
Asked why he took away from the meeting, Forsythe said, "I felt that Suk Rhee and her colleagues are working hard to gain some measure of acceptance of the work product produced by the Code Change Committee, Commissioner Eudaly's office, and OCCL staff.
"They have made adjustments to the proposal and to their messaging around it in good faith, but I believe the adjustments fall far short of what is needed."
After the meeting Forsythe also told THE BEE he had "no confidence" that neighborhood associations will continue to be recognized and supported.
"As Commissioner Eudaly's staffmember announced, it appears that the Commissioner also does not have confidence that the proposal is ready for consideration by the City Council. But I did not learn much in the meeting about what will be done to modify it further, or whether the already-modified proposal will be given consideration by the committee that signed off on the original proposal," Forsythe pointed out.
Gail Kiely, BDNA Board Member
"I don't think Rhee understands why we are so frustrated; all we want is clarity. Despite reassurances from her that 'nothing will change', I suspect when it comes to dealing with City Council and money, neighborhood associations get shortchanged.
"I want to believe that the Code is changing for the better, but somehow; but, I just don't trust them," Kiely said.
Lizzy Caston, Tabor South neighbor
"I took away from the meeting that the Code Change project – its process, management, and communications regarding it from Eudaly and the OCCL – is a 'hot mess' of government dysfunction.
"It has been framed by city leadership in a way that has unfairly and wrongly pits our communities against one another, as if to say, 'You are either for the Code Change or you are against equity and diversity'. Setting this up as 'Neighborhood Associations vs. Diversity' destroys trust in our local government as fair and steady stewards of public process, and is damaging to our community and city," commented Caston.
Mary Ann Schwab, Sunnyside resident, and Spirit of Portland recipient
Her take on the meeting: "The 3.96.060 Code keeps changing! When Suk Rhee was asked in the meeting why OCCL stopped using Roberts Rules of Order – requiring open meetings, discussion, and taking minutes – she responded in substance: 'In that so many cultures cannot relate to Roberts Rules of Order – it is not really necessary.' Instead, Rhee quickly went on to address how Neighborhood Associations need to protect the environment by stopping the use of plastic straws!
"The proposed Code Change eliminates the formal recognition of neighborhood associations that is premised on compliance with the 'Standards and Open Meetings' rules," Schwab observed.
The long-time neighborhood advocate concluded, "Mayor Wheeler's Budget 2020 will dictate how many OCCL employees will be serving Portlanders. It is City Council who must review and change the City Charter, Code 3.96.060. The City Charter is scheduled to be reviewed in 2021. So, why is Commissioner Chloe Eudaly in such a rush to eliminate 92% of the City Charter 3.96.060 Code? Who really benefits?"
Finally, about the November 14 Code Change meeting with the Portland City Council: a City Hall insider told this reporter, "It isn't going to happen." It is unclear if that means there will be no meeting, or there will be a meeting but with no vote taken at that time.
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