Activists lobby against deleting neighborhood groups from city code, supporters say reform overdue

CONTRIBUTED - A painting that is part of the 'Neighborood Associations Rock!' exhibition at the Elisabeth Jones Art Center.The fight over revising Portland's civic engagement process has moved to the City Council.

Although the city Office of Community and Civic Life is still rewriting the process, neighborhood activists already are lobbying the council against removing neighborhood associations from the City Code.

A citizen committee advising the office voted to recommend removing all references to the city's 95 neighborhood associations from the code on July 18.

Supporters say the change is necessary because an increasing number of Portland residents belong to communities that are not geographically well-defined.

"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.

But neighborhood activists said the change will betray decades of successful civic engagement without guaranteeing a more accountable system. Under the current code, neighborhood associations must comply with the public meeting and records laws.

"The Portland system has worked well over the years. Books have been written about our system of 'urban democracy' and it has been used as a model for many other cities," Eastmoreland activist Robert McCullough posted on the Next Door Neighbor blog.

The advisory committee made several last-minute changes to the proposal at its July 18 meeting, and the office still needs to finalize it. The council has scheduled a public hearing on the proposal from 5 to 8 p.m. on Sept. 3. Public testimony will be a accepted.

But several neighborhood associations are already urging their members to sign an online petition to the council to keep the associations in the code.

"Neighborhood associations are by definition geographically inclusive of all their residents, and can more easily be held — as they should be — to that higher standard of open, transparent and democratic governance," reads the petition, which had gathered more than 945 signatures by press time.

The Elisabeth Jones Arts Center also has opened an exhibit and launched a postcard campaign to support the neighborhood associations. The exhibit is called "Neighborhood Associations Rock!" It includes paintings and photographs of projects supported by neighborhood associations.

They include a painting of the Columbia Pool in North Portland that the area neighborhood association tried to save for Portland Parks & Recreation budget cuts. The center is at 516 N.W. 14th Ave.

Speaking to the City Club of Portland on July 12, a Portland State University professor emeritus said neighborhood associations were the first influential grassroots organizations beginning in the 1960s.

He suggested that some city officials might be annoyed with them now because they oppose current redevelopment policies, such as increasing residential densities.

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