Ever been to a neighborhood association meeting? How about a movie night in the park?
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.
For more information on Southwest Neighborhoods Inc. and the 17 neighborhood associations in Southwest Portland see www.swni.org
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