Is Portland violating the principle of subsidiarity in its neighborhood involvement system?

Portland’s model of neighborhood involvement is often held up as a standard of political participation for other cities. But recent revelations of problems within the Office Neighborhood Involvement (including the City Auditor’s recent review that found a “trifecta” of problems) call into question whether the city’s heyday of political activism – stopping freeways, building parks and plazas and the like — has given rise to another, more cynical era of cronyism and tokenistic representation (a question we have explored elsewhere in this blog).

Such a condition doesn’t require malevolent intent. It only requires that people become complacent, resting perhaps too much on their past laurels. It requires that City officials allow those with strong self-interests to seize their opportunities, and rationalize to the rest of us how their actions will create jobs, or build sustainability, or generate funding to do other things.  But these claims get scant examination for their validity.

Worse, when those claims or their consequences get challenged with grassroots dissent, there is a temptation to characterize this activism as a form of intolerable NIMBYism, and those who speak out are characterized as cranks, or small vocal elements of a political fringe, or “retirees with too much time on their hands.” Sometimes, those who speak out do indeed feel frustrated and marginalized, and sometimes that frustration manifests in angry expressions.

But of course, this dissent is what democratic citizenship is all about, and it is what grass-roots activism is all about. People are passionate, and sometimes vocal, and sometimes, yes, angry — especially when they feel they are not being heard or respected.  Welcoming this activism, this dissent, should be what the Portland neighborhood involvement system is all about too, surely.

Of course, those who once wanted to build very destructive freeways, and demolish treasured buildings, and displace entire neighborhoods of minorities (as they indeed did in Portland’s unhappy past) did not greet the citizen activists of the 1970s with welcome arms. Those activists were disparaged and marginalized then.

So it is a rich irony, and a troubling one, that we seem to have returned to the days when neighborhood representatives are now regularly disparaged and marginalized by representatives of developer interests, sometimes sadly joined by representatives of the City, and sometimes, their sympathetic allies within the neighborhood involvement system itself.  Worse, they are subject to political pressure and control, using funding mechanisms, insurance regulations, and other subtle ways of putting neighborhoods under the thumb of City Hall.

This is not a sign of healthy democratic neighborhood involvement, but rather, a symptom of a broken system.

The principle of subsidiarity is an important one to invoke at this point. Subsidiarity is widely discussed in many countries today, and within United Nations proceedings.  It is regarded by many as a precondition for healthy democratic participation and political justice. It boils down to the familiar idea that government derives its just powers from the consent of the governed, and from their informed participation at many levels, including the grass roots. The “higher” levels of government are in fact subsidiary to the lower levels, and to the people themselves.  (There is a relation to the idea of “polycentric governance” proposed by Elinor Ostrom, Jane Jacobs and others.)

Under Portland’s current neighborhood involvement system, that principle has, somehow, become inverted. The neighborhood associations have become administrative subjects of the Office of Neighborhood Involvement, and of the coalition system by which ONI administers its services. The money, insurance protection, websites and other benefits inevitably, intentionally or not, come with strings attached. There are subtle, and sometimes not subtle, exercises of political pressure and restraint on behavior from above. For a grass-roots democratic organization, this amounts to a subversion of democratic autonomy and free expression.

It is true that the neighborhood associations need more accountability, more transparency, and more participation from a fuller representative cross-section of their neighborhoods. But it is equally true that the entire neighborhood involvement system needs this and other reforms, from top to bottom. It is not helpful to suppose that the problem is that certain citizens are choosing to become active in issues they care about, and not helpful to disparage these same people. That is a symptom of a system that is in an advanced state of dysfunction.

It would seem that the new Mayor Wheeler and Commissioner Eudaly, both with agendas of greater transparency and accountability, bring with them an opportunity to examine the neighborhood involvement system, and explore the range of needed reforms. We hope they will start with the principle of subsidiarity, and work with the goal of a more constructive and more subsidiary relationship between citizens and their City.