SWNI's future rests in new council's hands
A new city council will be tasked with shaping the future of Southwest Neighborhoods Inc.
Despite a lengthy admonishment from Commissioner Chloe Eudaly Wednesday, Dec. 9, Portland city commissioners voted to table a proposal that would have temporarily shifted resources and responsibilities away from the Southwest Portland district coalition to Southeast Uplift.
The ordinance brought forward by the Office of Community & Civic Life would have provided Southeast Uplift an additional $145,000 to perform many of the roles currently being fulfilled by Southwest Neighborhoods Inc. (SWNI), after a recent audit concluded SWNI mismanaged or misspent a significant chunk of city grant funding over the past decade.
Southeast Uplift and SWNI are among seven nonprofit district coalitions that serve the city's 95 neighborhood associations in Portland.
Dozens of Southwest Portland residents had signed up to provide testimony to the council Wednesday, but Commissioner Amanda Fritz swiftly recommended tabling the matter, killing any chance of a vote before Fritz and Eudaly leave office at the end of the year.
Commissioner Eudaly, who oversees the Civic Life bureau, denounced the council's inaction.
"There is no justifiable reason to postpone this item," she said, calling the motion to table the topic a personal insult and a misuse of the procedure.
Eudaly took jabs at Fritz, while criticizing the council for failing to address what she called a culture of financial waste, exclusion and white supremacy within neighborhood organizations like SWNI.
A "clean-up job"
Eudaly's remarks Wednesday were the summation of her four years overseeing the Civic Life bureau and her efforts to reform the city's district coalitions and civic engagement model.
A recent forensic audit of SWNI, which the city commissioned and paid $30,000 for, showed the nonprofit coalition suppressed concerns from board members, while maintaining lax financial policies and protocols that led to money being misappropriated or misspent. Overall, auditors reported SWNI had mismanaged more than $350,000 of city grant money since 2010, roughly half of which stemmed from an embezzlement at the organization a decade ago.
Coincidentally, many of the issues called out by SWNI auditors were problems that also plagued the Civic Life bureau before Eudaly was assigned to manage it in 2016.
"Mayor, when you assigned this bureau to me, you knew it was a clean-up job," Eudaly said. She recalled a dysfunctional department rife with staffing issues, citizen complaints, and a lack of accountability. At one point, she said 10% of the bureau's staff was under investigation after community complaints and half of the bureau's staffers had their purchase cards revoked.
"When we discovered over $120,000 in purchases that were unaccounted for, we also discovered a civic engagement system that does not represent the full diversity of our community, and possibly violates federal civil rights laws and definitely does not serve our need for broad public involvement and input on our decisions and policy making. It is a system of white privilege in our city supported and perpetuated by this council and past councils," Eudaly told commissioners. "Portlanders, this organization has misspent your money."
The issue over how to handle SWNI has divided the council, and Southwest Portlanders.
Back in July, the City Council voted to withhold SWNI's annual funding contract, after city staff became concerned about the district coalition's operations and lack of transparency regarding financial records. Commissioners instead asked for an independent audit. Up until the audit was finished, Fritz and Mayor Ted Wheeler signaled their confidence that the coalition's city funding would be restored. Fritz, who lives in Southwest Portland, previously said she hoped to see that through before the end of the year.
Eudaly also wanted to see the council take action regarding SWNI before she leaves office, asking for it to be cut off from city resources. Eudaly lost her re-election bid in November to Mingus Mapps, who will take office in January. Eudaly called the council's decision not to act "a dereliction of fiduciary responsibility" and questioned the council's core values.
Mayor Wheeler took exception to Eudaly's tirade, noting he supported auditing SWNI and has a reputation for fiscal responsibility. He called the proposal rushed and "sloppy" work.
"My decision to want to table this item today has nothing to do with the veracity of the audit," Wheeler said, noting he and other commissioners advised Eudaly not to bring the ordinance forward.
"It is not ready for primetime," Wheeler said. "Moreover, it will be highly divisive and we will hear lots of very divisive testimony on both sides. … I am not prepared to hear a death penalty solution for SWNI without understanding who and where those services will be delivered."
Commissioner Dan Ryan, who was the third vote to table the matter, along with Wheeler and Fritz, suggested the city needs to examine its district coalition model and allow organizations to improve upon audit findings.
Hardesty did not vote and appeared to leave the morning meeting just before the vote was taken.
Fritz didn't speak about the matter during the council meeting, but later issued a statement on her website.
"Now is not the time for a divisive, vitriolic public battle on the future of the community engagement system in Portland," Fritz stated. She said the proposal brought to council didn't follow the city's own standards for restructuring district coalitions.
"I have full confidence that the 2021 Council with a new Commissioner in charge of community engagement will guide an inclusive, respectful, equitable way forward for Neighborhood Associations and other communities with affinities beyond geographic boundaries. I know the staff and volunteers in Southwest are eager to make community involvement more anti-racist, equitable, transparent, collaborative, fiscally responsible, communicative, and accountable."
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