Betraying our city’s legacy of public involvement, and our values in grass-roots democracy

An editorial

A Portland City Council meeting from September 2018.

Those of us who work professionally in public involvement (including this author) know that people can be a real pain in the rear.  They can be selfish, short-sighted, unreasonable, even hostile.  We can react to them in one of two ways.  We can stiff-arm them, marginalize them, attack them for their behavior, and replace them with more pliant tokens of representation.

Or we can treat them as fellow citizens.

For that is what they are – citizens, with democratic rights to participate in the shaping of their public realm, their neighborhood, and their city.

We can remind them civilly too of their responsibilities, to engage pro-actively and not just reactively, to consider other points of view, and to participate in a constructive conversation and a civic process.  We can also do our own level best to maintain such a process, and engage them in it. We might all then learn something from one another, and accomplish something together. That would be democracy at its best.

But democracy at its worst is still democracy – still “the worst form of government, except for all the others.”

Disturbingly, some people in Portland have made it pretty clear recently that they don’t have much stomach for democracy.  They’d rather impose their own ideas about social justice and how to achieve it, for example. Their methods include shouting down their opponents, bullying, threatening and suing.  They seem only too happy to become little dictators of their own opinions, and to hell with the rights of other citizens in this city – others who might happen to disagree with them.

Incredibly, some of these people are in government – and today they are engaged in the systematic dismantling of Portland’s vaunted public involvement system, based in neighborhood-scale, grass-roots democracy.

Take Jamey Duhamel, policy director for Commissioner Chloe Eudaly.  After recent citizen testimony by members of southwest neighborhood associations who were upset about the City’s unilateral change of their addresses, she expressed her true attitude to public involvement in text messages obtained by The Oregonian newspaper.

It is especially notable that Eudaly is the commissioner in charge of the City’s public involvement system, and her office has long denied that it is hostile to neighborhood associations.  But Duhamel’s emails reveal a different story.

“Why is this taking so long, ffs? Like WE GET IT ALREADY!! Who are they trying to convince?” she texted to Mustafa Washington, Mayor Ted Wheeler’s operations manager.

“How you like that ‘high income, high caliber’ bullshit. This is why we need our neighborhood associations in their place. They get too much power and voice….they are white and ‘high caliber’ soooooooo … any inconvenience is a big deal to their cozy lives. HOW DARE WE STRESS THEM OUT!!!… So. Much. Privilege.”

But is it privilege for citizens to complain to government about unilateral actions that affect those citizens’ lives?  Or is it the responsibility of government to listen to citizens, whatever their backgrounds or identities (certainly non-white but also white), and try to involve them respectfully in decision-making?  The City of Portland claims that is the case – but its actions here and elsewhere betray those claims.

It is a common narrative that neighborhood association members are white, wealthy, exclusionary, even oppressors of minority voices. It is a broad brush and often flat out untrue.  Worse, it is a pretense to deny an entire class of citizens their democratic rights – no less offensive than denials to other classes of citizens, in a democratic society in which all are supposed to be equal under the law. Injustice spread around is not justice.

Let’s be more specific. This narrative is also too often a mere cover story, providing the convenient pretext by which to bully citizens into submission in order to get pet projects through city approvals.  This is straight out of Donald Trump’s playbook, formerly as a developer, and now, as president: attack, insult, divide. Launch Twitter tirades. Harass, bully, and file lawsuits.

It is not a coincidence – though it is certainly an irony – that one of Donald Trump’s biggest supporters in the Northwest is allied with some of these same aggressors, these same promoters of pet projects. This Trump supporter is himself a major developer, so his own interests are obvious.  The interests of other allies who act like Trump, but fly the flag of social justice in order to promote a “build, baby build’ agenda, is more confused — to put it mildly.  What they have in common with Trump is an apparent disdain for democracy.  (Trumpism in a blue flavor, perhaps?)

What is going on? At best they are being manipulated, encouraged to be divisive, and playing into the hands of those who have the real power — those who are smiling all the way to the bank.  This is certainly not promoting constructive engagement and problem-solving, which is the public sector’s primary responsibility. Nor is it promoting real social justice — or real affordability, or real sustainability. It is simply allowing the city to be divided and conquered – and in some cases, doing it from City Hall.

The hostile reaction of neighborhood activists to such stiff-arming, tokenism and demonization is all too predictable. For those of us who work in public involvement, it’s a familiar reaction.

But in Portland’s case, we have fallen so far from what we were, and claim to be, as a healthy grass-roots democracy. The good news is that there are already signs of a new awareness — a new willingness to look hard at ourselves, to pick up the pieces of our legacy, and to revive and strengthen a moribund system. It’s high time.