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Proposed changes to the City Code section for civic engagement are headed to City Council in November

PMG PHOTO: BILL GALLAGHER - Suk Rhee, director of the Office of Communiyt and Civic Life,  wrote down questions from the audience before her presentation Tuesday, September 10 at the Multnomah Arts Center.For all the talk of a civic war, the Tuesday night appearance in Multnomah Village of the Portland city official who has enraged some neighborhood activists was downright civil.

Suk Rhee, director of the Office of Civic and Community Life (once the Office of Neighborhood Involvement), spoke to about 75 people at the monthly meeting of the Multnomah Neighborhood Association. 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.

Because the rewrite initially dropped any mention or recognition of neighborhood associations, district coalitions and business districts, there was an angry reaction from hundreds of volunteers across the city. In fact, a "summit" of more than a hundred of them was held in late July in the same auditorium where Rhee spoke.

That anger was then stoked by reports in the Oregonian that the Director of Policy for 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 apologized but the damage was done.

PMG PHOTO: BILL GALLAGHER - Winta Yohannes, a policy advisor in the office of Commissioner Chloe Eudaly, who oversees the Office of Community and Civic Life, addressed the rancor between Eudaly staff and neighborhood activists."Are we unhappy with the neighborhood associations? No," said Winta Yohannes, Policy Advisor 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 members were whether under the new code there would still be money for the neighborhood association system and why there are 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 Bureaus like the Portland Bureau of Transportation and the Bureau of Environmental Services (BES) would no longer have to notify neighborhood associations about plans to tear up streets or replace old sewer lines. She assured skeptical attendees that a plan is being developed to make sure Bureaus continue to notify neighborhood associations. (Ironically, to comply with the current code, BES had set up an informational kiosk outside the hall to tell neighbors about an upcoming year-long sewer project.)

There was occasional grumbling from the crowd. Rhee's tactic of asking for questions before her presentation 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," was about as rowdy as things got.

The man who posed the question about budget resources, Gary Berger, from the Hillside Neighborhood Association in Northwest Portland, 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 afterwards 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 – August 24). And we celebrated the fact that Maplewood neighborhood had the number one fewest sidewalks in Potland 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. on Thursday November 14.

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