My View: City shouldn't kick SWNI to the curb
In these challenging days as president of Southwest Neighborhoods Inc., I often wake up in the middle of the night wondering if this is all just a bad dream.
How could an honorable, mission-focused organization that has served southwest Portland's residents and neighborhoods so well for more than 40 years find itself maligned in a very public fashion and fighting for its survival? How could so many people who volunteer so much time to make their neighborhoods a better place to live suddenly — and so unexpectedly — face the prospect of losing the organization that helps make it all possible? How can the actions of an individual who embezzled from SWNI a decade ago still be used as fodder even though the fiscal controls SWNI implemented after that have successfully prevented it from happening again?
Then I wake up and think of the words of C.E.S. Wood, Portland author, civil libertarian and influential cultural figure at the turn of the 20th century: "Good citizens are the riches of a city."
That reminds me why we are so earnestly defending SWNI against the overly harsh, and in many cases, unfounded criticisms we face of "willful" mismanagement. That is why we agree to serve in unpaid leadership positions with SWNI. It's because we are good citizens working on behalf of other good citizens to do the things that make our communities a better place.
Recent accusations of mismanagement have tested our resolve. But even now, despite the suspension of SWNI's funding from the city six months ago, we continue to press on with our mission. We have been able do this thanks in part to the generous donations of residents who have opened their pocketbooks and donated enough money to keep SWNI afloat. In these days of COVID-19 and unsettled economic conditions, that is testament to the value people place on SWNI's contributions to our community.
This week, Portland's City Council is considering an ordinance to summarily defund SWNI and transfer our services to a neighborhood coalition on Portland's eastside. The proposed ordinance also foresees massive changes in our system of neighborhood-based citizen engagement that has been the envy of other municipalities since 1971.
This proposal should not be approved. Why? Because the audit upon which it is based found no evidence of fraud or wrongdoing on SWNI's part since stronger fiscal controls were put in place in 2011. The audit did bring to our attention internal procedures that create some vulnerabilities, but these can — and will — be addressed.
Moreover, the far-reaching implications of the ordinance require much more consideration and public involvement than 30 minutes on a council agenda. Given that two new commissioners will join the City Council next month, the future of SWNI and how city government interacts with the public should be addressed after new council is in place — not in a hurried process with precious little public involvement and just weeks before the sponsoring commissioner leaves office.
If the proposed ordinance fails to receive council approval, our pledge is to work diligently to improve SWNI's fiscal controls and rebuild our relationship with the city so that it once again becomes a positive, collaborative partnership in the interest of serving the public good.
Leslie Hammond is president of the Southwest Neighborhoods Inc. board.
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