Portland neighborhood groups in limbo during Civic Life transition
Six months after the city of Portland promised to directly support Southwest neighborhoods with staff and resources, some say they've been left in limbo.
Two new employees at the city's Office of Community & Civic Life — who were supposed to be hired by July to assist and provide administrative services to Southwest Portland neighborhood associations — have yet to materialize. Additionally, a city-funded insurance contract failed to provide full coverage for neighborhood associations and their boards of directors, leading some to delay regular meetings over liability concerns.
A letter sent to Civic Life Thursday, Aug. 12, by the president of the South Burlingame Neighborhood Association called the city's efforts to secure proper insurance for west side neighborhood associations an "epic failure."
The letter notes the city paid East Portland Neighbors $10,000 to secure and manage insurance coverage for neighborhood groups that were previously covered by Southwest Neighborhoods Inc., but as of Aug. 20, the policy in place lacked adequate coverage.
"In nearly a month, we have still not received Directors and Officers insurance that leaves every volunteer board member with personal exposure," Shannon Hiller-Webb, president of the South Burlingame Neighborhood Association, wrote in a letter to the city bureau. "Many neighborhoods have canceled their monthly board meetings (some indefinitely), several board members have resigned due to exposure and business has all but stopped."
In February, Portland City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, who oversees the Civic Life bureau that manages contracts and relationships with neighborhood groups, announced she was cutting funding and ties with Southwest Neighborhoods Inc., better known as SWNI. The decision came after months of a deteriorating relationship between the city bureau and the nonprofit district coalition. SWNI previously had received substantial grant funding from the city to provide services and fiscal sponsorship to 17 different neighborhood associations in Southwest Portland.
Instead of the city paying SWNI to provide services, Hardesty said, Civic Life would bolster its staffing and find a different organization to manage insurance services for the neighborhood groups. Two new staffers were to be hired by July.
By mid-August, following a mass exodus of employees from the Civic Life office and a resignation of the bureau's director, the additional staffing was not yet in place.
"This transition has been bumpy and in the absence of process, leadership and support, neighbors have been left with questions, concerns and exposure as volunteers doing our best to support the city and community interest for an engaged and informed constituency," Hiller-Webb told city leaders on behalf of her neighborhood association.
Mike Charles, who chairs the board of directors for Marshall Park Neighborhood Association, gave a similar account.
"By July 1, Civic Life was supposed to hire two dedicated coordinators to work with Southwest (neighborhood associations,) providing much of the support we used to get from SWNI," Charles said, "but the hiring process is not completed."
Charles also noted the insurance coverage was still being negotiated weeks before regular neighborhood meetings were slated to resume and said reimbursements that used to be easy and efficient through SWNI now take weeks or months through the city.
Charles said that previously, SWNI would assist neighborhood associations in filing charitable activity statements with the state.
"SWNI still helps us with the paperwork and filing, but now each neighborhood association has to pay the fee and get reimbursed by Civic Life," Charles said. "The reimbursement process for this small amount has taken over a month and counting. For larger amounts I hear the process is even longer."
Despite the hiccups and slow transition, Charles commended the Civic Life staff.
"They have been very helpful and return my inquiries quite promptly. They are eager to help. Often when dealing with the city, it's hard to find a human connection. But the individuals at Civic Life seem to care," Charles said.
Daniel McArdle-Jaimes, a communications officer with Civic Life, said a district coalition office supervisor had been hired as of Aug. 20, and the two new coordinators were slated to be hired soon. McArdle-Jaimes also noted the insurance coverage had been corrected and would be active by late August.
"Through this transition, we held four informational meetings, regularly corresponded with Southwest neighborhoods and sent formal updates to Southwest neighborhoods from our offices about our progress," McArdle-Jaimes said. "We look forward to having all insurance needs met by next week if not sooner."
Two other neighborhood associations did not respond to questions or requests for input.
While some neighborhood groups cited instability at the city bureau that's supposed to be helping them, the organization that used to help them is also in flux.
Since losing a key city contract, SWNI has been on a slow financial decline. The nonprofit organization's last remaining employee — a bookkeeper — resigned suddenly at the end of June, citing dwindling finances, mounting expenses and an unstable future. Despite pleas and threats of litigation from SWNI, Portland's elected leaders have said the city won't restore funding or contracts with SWNI.
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