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Hardesty asks city to hire two staffers to take over for embattled Southwest Portland coalition

Portland city commissioners are slated to vote next Wednesday, March 10, on an ordinance to hire two new staffers to help manage 17 neighborhood associations in Southwest Portland.

The City Council heard a first reading of the ordinance Wednesday, March 3.

PMG FILE PHOTO - Portland City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty speaks at an event. Hardesty is asking the City Council to consider a proposal that would add staffing to the city's Office of Community and Civic Life to help oversee Southwest Portland neighborhood associations.Hiring two new staffers in Portland's Office of Community & Civic Life would give the city additional resources to help manage and assist the neighborhood groups, a job previously delegated to Southwest Neighborhoods, Inc. The proposal wouldn't cost the city any additional money, because it would use funds that previously went to Southwest Neighborhoods Inc.

The council's upcoming vote comes on the heels of Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty's announcement on Feb. 24 that she would not be authorizing any funding to Southwest Neighborhoods Inc. (SWNI), the coalition that previously oversaw the neighborhood groups. Hardesty said she made that decision after reviewing the results of a 2020 audit and other documents pointing to a pattern of fiscal mismanagement and board dysfunction, including a bullying culture within the neighborhood coalition. She said the group shouldn't be given any more city money.

Staff in Commissioner Hardesty's office said the money that used to go to SWNI in the form an annual grant contract would be enough to pay for the new hires. The city would also authorize $20,000 for a nonprofit group to help the neighborhood associations obtain insurance, a service previously provided by SWNI.

The Southwest Portland coalition's board members fought back against Hardesty's characterization of their organization Wednesday, March 3.

SWNI President Leslie Hammond, along with two other board officers, rehashed criticism of the 2020 audit, calling it flawed and biased. They also pointed to similar complaints of bullying and dysfunction within the city's own Civic Life office, noting an audit of the city bureau is underway.

"This process has damaged and ruined our reputation," Hammond told city commissioners. "We had a CPA on our board for two years. Before the last year, he went through all of our financials and they were in good shape, and we've had a retired auditor look at our last two years of financials, and they're in good shape, so the basis for the decision is based on faulty information."

The city's own protocols for changing management and financial sponsorship of neighborhood associations call for a vote from the majority of neighborhood associations. But the decision regarding SWNI was a unilateral decision by a city commissioner.

Hardesty's staff said the city's standards can be overridden.

"Our office has consulted with the City Attorney's Office and the proposed Ordinance for tomorrow does not conflict with ONI standards," Matt McNally, communication strategist in Hardesty's office, told The Connection. "The standards were created by previous council action and can be changed by the current council to ensure fiscal responsibility in the management of taxpayer money."

Hardesty oversees the Civic Life bureau. She met with SNWI last week to deliver the news that she was removing the nonprofit coalition as financial and administrative steward of the 17 neighborhood groups it helps manage, citing concerns about how taxpayer money had been handled over the past decade.

SWNI has been granted $3.17 million in no-bid grant contracts since 2009. In July 2020, the City Council opted not to renew its grant contract and instead ordered an audit of the organization's fiscal and management practices.

Mayor Ted Wheeler reiterated that Hardesty's decision to pull funding from SWNI was not up for consideration.

"I just want to reiterate something, Commissioner Hardesty just said that the business before us today is not about whether or not the funding should or should not be pulled," Wheeler said. "That is an executive decision. It's under the purview of the commissioner in charge. She's made that decision, so that is now in the rearview mirror."

The council will reconvene Wednesday, March 10, when they are expected to vote on the ordinance.

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- Audit reveals pattern of financial mismanagement at SWNI

- Southwest Neighborhoods Inc. lays off staff as funds dry up

- SWNI directors call for overhaul

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