Some fear that Portland’s Office of Neighborhood Involvement may be preparing to take the final symbolic step in eviscerating its pioneering system of geographic representation by neighborhoods
The announcement that came from the Office of Neighborhood Involvement earlier this week seemed innocent – a harmless bit of re-branding, perhaps. But given the troubled history of that city agency — a scathing audit that found a “trifecta” of problems, and the Mayor’s declaration last year that ONI was “most in need of reform” — the new message seemed oddly cosmetic.
“ONI’s name is changing to better reflect our work and the people and place we serve now and for subsequent generations. We’d like you to participate in the renaming! ONI, like Portland, has changed and grown over the years…”
Portland has indeed grown — and so have its challenges, of course.
But a half-century ago, the city also saw many of the same kinds of challenges. Today, as then, the city is seeing pressures of rapid in-migration and population growth, demolition of historic fabric, lack of equitable opportunity for many residents, disruptive new development, and treatment of some neighborhoods as “expendable” — creating shocking patterns of displacement in favor of “urban renewal” to make way for an influx of often wealthier new residents.
In those days it was the grass-roots neighborhood activists who championed a better path for the city — preserving and building on our urban heritage, limiting destructive new development, protecting and revitalizing existing neighborhoods, modulating (but not stopping) growth, and preserving and revitalizing the existing affordable homes and small businesses. Those efforts helped usher in a remarkable urban renaissance, making Portland the envy of many other cities. We all enjoy the legacy of that era today.
That spirit of purpose and unity needs to be rekindled.
For today, an ugly new tone of divisiveness has entered the city — and neighborhoods and their associations are increasingly attacked, not as allies and defenders of Portland’s best urban qualities, but as old, rich, NIMBY, and worse. That’s far from fair — or wise.
Of course everyone in the city must do more to right the injustices of the past, and every neighborhood association should do more to be more inclusive, representative and transparent. But it appears to this observer that the City wants to go far beyond that. It wants to throw neighborhoods under the bus.
In fact, this re-branding campaign may be revealing something even deeper and more disturbing — that the City has outgrown its support of the neighborhood involvement system itself. It has allowed well-meaning but muddled thinking to cripple its “nationally recognized neighborhood involvement system,” as the City’s website proudly refers to it.
Perhaps the pride is not so great any more. As we wrote on this blog last May, the City seems to have decided that it’s time to marginalize neighborhood associations, rather than to improve and strengthen them.
The principal tool of marginalization is called a “non-geographic community.” As we wrote, under ONI’s new approach,
…“non-geographic communities” [will] be placed into competition with the neighborhood associations, in a heavy-handed attempt to create a more inclusive system. The trouble is, who gets representation, and how much? Who selects these “non-geographic communities”? The City, of course. But it is far too easy to put one’s fingers on the scale, perhaps without realizing it, and allow a subtle form of corruption to influence the results – biased towards a favored group, or maybe even a favored industry….
At the same time, the City needs to ask itself a basic question: does it believe in local grass-roots democracy at all? In the fundamental concept of geographic representation at all?
We suggest that citizens ask the new director, Suk Rhee, to carefully consider the following four points before going ahead with any plans for changes — to names, or to missions:
- Portland’s geographic-based neighborhood association system is pioneering and important within our city culture, and needs to be strengthened and streamlined, not weakened and marginalized. But this is what has happened, and still seems to be happening. What can be done to reverse this trend?
- We appreciate Suk Rhee’s efforts effort to put ONI’s affairs in order. However, given an audit that revealed systemic problems, we always have to ask ourselves if we’re “re-arranging deckchairs on the Titanic.” Is ONI a dysfunctional bureau that is still failing to serve and empower neighborhoods? What deeper reforms are still needed?
- We certainly agree with the goal of more inclusion and diversity — but not parallel to (and competing with) geographic representation by neighborhoods. This would be tokenism, and that would be bad for those communities — and bad for neighborhoods. Instead, inclusion and empowerment must happen at the neighborhood level.
- How can we strengthen the principle of “subsidiarity”? Under that principle, the city is supposed to be subsidiary to its constituents, including the neighborhoods — not the other way around. But today the City acts too much like a supervisor of the neighborhoods, using the coalition system as a kind of leash. How can this inversion of the subsidiarity principle be fixed?
In the interest of offering constructive alternatives, I’d like to suggest a new model. Perhaps it’s time now to consider a binary system of two entirely separate City entities.
One entity might be an office of citizen involvement, commissioned to perform outreach and participation from the widest possible constituency of citizens. It would be charged with empowerment — not just tokenistic representation — for formerly excluded people, and challenging policies that perpetrate the injustices of the City’s shameful past. (And sometimes, present.)
The other entity might be a “council of neighborhoods” that has a more formal voice in city affairs. Its members, the neighborhood associations, could be directly funded through participatory budgeting, with support services chosen by the neighborhoods from a pool of city-vetted contractors. There are good international models for this kind of “subsidiarity” in action, and Portland could draw from them — and once again assert its own leadership in this area.
One thing is for sure — more than a name change is needed. Yet the name change may be revealing of the true nature of the problem. Not many people remember now that ONI’s first name was the “Office of Neighborhood Associations,” or ONA. Then it became the “Office of Neighborhood Involvement,” reflecting a more diluted relationship with the associations. We will soon see whether the word “neighborhood” is dropped altogether.
Without deeper reforms, it might be more accurate to simply re-name the agency “ONO” — short for the “Office of Neighborhood Oblivion.”