After repeated and confusing changes to hearing schedules, neighborhood stakeholders show up to protest, are chewed out by Councilmember Eudaly
In a vote that surprised few people, the Portland City Council ratified the proposed name change of the Office of Neighborhood Involvement, the bureau famously derided by City Hall insiders as “the island of misfit toys”.
The Northwest Examiner features the story on its first page for this month. Excerpts from the article:
The Office of Neighborhood Involvement is rebranding itself for a social diversity and equity mission while distancing the agency from its roots in the neighborhood association system.
Office of Neighborhood Involvement Director Suk Rhee and City Commissioner Chloe Eudaly announced in May that the program will be called the Office of Community & Civic Life effective July 1. After discovering that they cannot transform a city bureau by fiat, they got on the July 18 council agenda…
New brochures were printed before Office of Neighborhood Involvement officials knew they needed City Council approval before changing the agency’s name.
Although Rhee has told skeptical Westside neighborhood association activists that “our mission remains the same,” a 16-page brochure rolling out the program mentions the phrase “neighborhood association(s)” only once, and then merely to define the program’s original purpose.
In announcing the changes as fait accompli, ONI violated the most elemental aspect of citizen participation: People must know when decisions affecting their lives will be on the public docket so they can prepare and speak to decision-makers before binding action is taken. Being told a decision is final when it is not is one step worse than no notification at all; it falsely guides citizens to do nothing while they still have the power to act….
On July 2, the agency website noted that the name change will go to council July 18, but no further clarification was given.
Changing the name is one thing, rewriting its purpose is another.
As adopted in current code (3.96.010), the Office of Neighborhood Involvement is responsible for recognizing neighborhood associations, district coalitions and business district associations to “create a framework by which the people of the city of Portland may effectively participate in civic affairs and work to improve the livability and character of their neighborhoods and the city.
Another section of the code (3.96.060) directs ONI to “support and promote public involvement within the neighborhood association framework.”
Making that language jibe with a program now promoting non-geographic communities, immigrants and underrepresented populations may be more complicated than issuing a press release…
At least two local neighborhood associations, the Northwest District Association and Goose Hollow Foothills League, have gone further.
NWDA unanimously approved a letter to council asking for an explanation of the reasons for the changing of ONI’s name and goals. It also asked for direct notification when the matter is put on the council agenda and for the opportunity to provide testimony.
GHFL leveled a broader critique. In a three-page letter unanimously approved by its board last month, the association opposed the removal of neighborhood from the office’s name. The letter also addressed political theory.
“Place-based neighborhoods are at the center of Portland’s public involvement paradigm, and to ignore that would be a serious error,” the GHFL letter stated. “The identity-based organizations are political associations that by their nature exclude others, and, while they should be recognized in the political realm, don’t and can’t provide the same kind of public representation that place-based representation can.
“We suggest there is a problem with any bureaucracy choosing to change its own responsibilities,” the letter continued. “This is backwards, a reversal of the United Nations-articulated principle of subsidiarity, where it is posited that democracy and social justice work best when decisions are made at the most local level rather than by central authority. The mission should arise from the people, acting through elected representatives. This was the process and the vision at the bureau’s inception.”
The full hearing video, citizen testimony, and Council and staff discussions (including a tongue-lashing of some neighborhood association representatives by Councilmember Eudaly) can be seen at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PrxQyRvPYGs.