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.

Portland City Auditor proposes Charter amendments to assure greater accountability and transparency

Portland City Auditor Mary Hull Caballero believes there is a problem with the current structure of City government.   The Auditor’s office, which is charged with reviewing the actions of other Executive Branch bureaus, is not sufficiently independent of those same bureaus, she says.   This too-cozy relationship subjects the Auditor to potential political pressure and funding restrictions,  in conflict with Generally Accepted Government Auditing Standards.  The result, she says, is a lack of ethical transparency and accountability in City affairs — not incidentally, a key campaign issue for the two newest members of the Council, Mayor Ted Wheeler and Commissioner Chloe Eudaly.

At a January 10th workshop, Hull Caballero presented concrete proposals to re-organize the position of the Auditor and make other reforms, which would require an amendment to the City Charter.  That amendment would have to be approved by the voters in a May 16th election.  The City Council will take up the question at a hearing on January 25th at 2pm at City Council, 1221 SW 4th Avenue.  Citizens are invited to testify in person, or by email to Commissioners, the City Clerk, and the Auditor.

The hearing should be telling.  Mayor Ted Wheeler criticized the City heavily for a lack of transparency and accountability in government as a candidate, and this would seem an opportune time to make good on his campaign pledges for reform.  Chloe Eudaly, also just elected as Commissioner, has indicated she strongly supported the proposals.  Commissioners Fish and Saltzman are less clear in their positions (Saltzman was absent from the January 10th workshop) while Commissioner Fritz was openly opposed.  (It should be noted that Commissioner Fritz until recently headed the Office of Neighborhood Involvement, the subject of a “scathing” report by the Auditor. She was removed from that position against her wishes by Mayor Wheeler.)

Three guest speakers strongly supported the Auditor’s proposals at the workshop: Gary Blackmer, past Portland City auditor for many years, and later Director of Secretary of State’s Audits Division for many years. Craig Kenton, Dallas City Auditor, who recently led a similar review in Dallas; and Kristen Chambers, attorney, National Lawyers Guild member, stakeholder on other accountability stakeholder committees.

The 2011 Generally Accepted Government Auditing Standards (also referred to as the “Yellow Book”) specifically requires Auditors to address threats to their independence. This is what the Auditor hopes to accomplish with these charter changes.

The Auditor’s three proposals are:

  1. An ability to hire independent legal counsel.
    Current structure requires legal support to come from the City Attorney, who is hired and reports directly to City Council. Being required to use them as legal counsel for internal investigations is an obvious conflict of interest. The Auditor is both watchdog and “the watched.”
  2. The right to present the Auditor’s budget directly to City Council.
    The current structure requires the Auditor’s budget to be processed first by the Budget Office, which is hired and reports directly to City Council. The Charter change would ensure the Auditor’s Office is autonomous, appropriately funded and insulated from political interference. The City of Dallas Auditor reported that that City recently went through a similar revision, and he recommended the budget solution now used by the City: a standing percentage of the annual city budget is given to the City Auditor’s office.
  3. The right to make personnel, management, and procurement decisions independently for the Auditor’s Office.
    The proposal would ensure the Auditor’s Office is autonomous from the Office of Management and Finance and other bureaus. The Auditor will periodically procure or conduct internal quality control reviews and report the results to the public.

Link to the Auditor’s announcement is here.

Recent news article on the workshop:

Does Portland have a planning ethics problem?

Willamette Week’s illustration showing an increased height benefit received by one of the advisors to the Central City 2035 Plan, as the result of changes recommended by the advisors.

Portland’s new Mayor Ted Wheeler made it clear during the campaign that he thinks Portland has a significant problem with ethical transparency, notably in its planning processes.  “We need a city government committed at all levels to increased transparency and accountability in governing, and it appears this is an area where they have fallen short,” he told the Northwest Examiner during the campaign.

Then-candidate Wheeler was speaking about the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability and their West Quadrant Plan Stakeholder Advisory Committee, part of the Central City 2035 plan that is now moving through review.  The City Auditor had just found that members of the Committee had not disclosed potential conflicts of interest, including some with significant development interests in the area. “The public deserves confidence that city decisions aren’t being made with undisclosed interests influencing the process,” said Wheeler.

Now that he is in office, many people wonder how the new Mayor will handle the issue.

From the Northwest Examiner last year:

“Portland city officials have not been overly concerned about possible conflicts of interest among citizens who advise them on policy matters… This casual attitude toward citizen advisers may be ending as a result of an Oct. 21 [2015] report by Ombudsman Margie Sollinger of the City Auditor’s Office.

“Sollinger supported the essence of an anonymous complaint filed with her office in June. The complaint charged that property owners, builders, developers, architects and others with a financial stake in development filled 24 of the 33 seats on the West Quadrant Stakeholders Advisory Committee. [Advising on elements of the Central City 2035 Plan, including increased building heights and other potential developer benefits.]

“Furthermore, all but one of the 17 members who voted to increase building height limits and relax development restrictions had real or potential conflicts of interest, the complaint asserted.

“Members of the committee were not asked to disclose their property interests at any point in a two-year process during which they met 16 times and produced a plan later approved by City Council.

“I have concluded that the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability did not properly train SAC members about their legal obligations,” Sollinger wrote. “I have also concluded that it appears likely that individual SAC members did not comply with their obligations to disclose potential conflicts of interest.

““As a remedy, I have recommended that the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability call for SAC members to publicly disclose any potential conflicts before the Planning and Sustainability Commission or the City Council adopts a final plan in 2016,” [Sollinger said.]

“I commend the citizen activists who brought this to the auditor’s attention and her push to require transparency from all appointees to advisory committees about potential conflicts of interest,” [said then-Mayoral candidate Ted Wheeler.]

UPDATE:  The City Attorney did direct the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability to request the disclosure statements from SAC members after the fact. Five of the 33 members of the West Quadrant SAC did not comply, including several prominent developers with holdings in the area:



One of Portland’s great treasures – its remarkable grid of walkable streets

Portland’s walkable, transit-supportive street grid is the envy of many other cities. Principal streets are continuous at a 1/4 mile spacing across barriers – even rivers and freeways. This is an important feature, as research has shown (see e.g.

As we’re assessing what we in Portland need to do to build on our livable heritage, and how we can exchange lessons with other cities, it’s worth stopping occasionally to look at the powerful assets we do have.  One of our most important assets is surely our famously walkable street grid – a holdover from the 19th Century streetcar city design, based in turn on the Continental Land Survey with its 1-mile grid system.

Here’s an article from a while back celebrating this treasure, and pointing out the important lessons it has to offer to other cities.  Those are lessons we can still learn too, as we look to re-connect and revitalize sprawling parts of the city, and the region.

Portland’s Remarkable Model of Modern Walkable Urbanism

Ted Wheeler becomes Mayor, names ONI as “most in need of reform” (tied with the Police Bureau)

Willamette Week’s illustration of their “pop quiz” for the new mayor.

The current issue of Portland’s Willamette Week has a “pop quiz” for the newly inaugurated Mayor Wheeler, who starts his position today. One of the eyebrow-raising questions concerned the Office of Neighborhood Involvement, or ONI: “True or false: ONI is the city bureau most in need of reform.”

His response: “It’s tied for first place.”  (With the Police Bureau, we later learned.

The Office of Neighborhood Involvement is a feature of pride for a city that has a reputation for citizen activism and strong neighborhood representation in government affairs.  But recent developments have exposed deep problems in the department, and perhaps in the City’s wider culture of stakeholder representation.  The Mayor’s comments come less than two months after a scathing article in The Oregonian:

“City auditors have found a trifecta of problems inside Portland’s office promoting neighborhoods and civic engagement, including poor oversight, unequal funding and unfinished plans.”

Among other issues, the Oregonian article described unequal funding for citizens in different parts of the city, with notably higher funding in the core than in the periphery:

“In the last fiscal year, officials doled out $2.1 million to the seven district coalitions that serve as umbrella groups for various neighborhood associations. Of that, the East Portland Neighborhood Office and the Central Northeast group each received nearly the same amount of money — just under $300,000. But the east office represents nearly 150,000 people, three times as many residents as Central Northeast, meaning it received about $2 for every person in its dominion compared to about $6 for the other group.”