The level of anger among Portland neighborhoods is palpable. The promise of Portland’s neighborhood involvement system, a noble creation of activists of the 1970s and 1980s, is now in doubt. Instead of focusing on the core agenda of empowering grass-roots democracy and participation, too much of the focus seems to be on “turf protection,” “damage control,” blaming “NIMBYs” and suppressing “troublemakers.” Too many competing agendas – many of them unaccountable special interests – are acting to suppress healthy democratic debate and grass-roots problem-solving.
What are the key issues? We see four main areas of concern:
– Funding equity. Surely each citizen should receive, through their local neighborhood association, an equitable share of the support provided by the City for neighborhood involvement and participatory budgeting. At present, funding disparity is an unacceptable condition for many East Portland neighborhoods, and for neighborhoods with significant minority populations. More broadly, it is an issue for all neighborhoods, whose democratic participation and financial equity are diluted and filtered by coalition bureaucracies, and by misguided attempts to insert competing “non-geographic communities” in a heavy-handed, hodge-podge fashion.
– Direct and meaningful democratic representation. All neighborhood associations should be free to form coalitions and caucuses so as to magnify their influence on issues of common concern. However, the current non-profit coalition system, which was created and imposed by the City, has produced significant problems. Most seriously, it introduces an extraneous, essentially unaccountable unit of governance (i.e. a State-recognized non-profit corporation, which is a legal person outside of City governance). This structure causes interference with democratic representation, by introducing a discontinuous layer of administrative bureaucracy. Because it is a separate corporate person, it does not and cannot operate effectively within the accountable system of City governance. This extraneous layer must be reformed.
– Efficiency, transparency and accountability of support. Funding and other forms of support should be leveraged to provide maximum impact with maximum transparency and accountability. All actions should focus on direct citizen participation, participatory budgeting and capacity to act within their own neighborhoods. However, as noted previously, the current coalition system inserts a series of bureaucratic layers, inefficiencies, and competing (sometimes unaccountable) agendas.
– Subsidiarity and meaningful participation. The principle of “subsidiary governance” relies upon the recognition that ultimately, “all politics is local.” It follows that all other levels of government are subsidiary and should be in the business of empowering the most local units. While other non-geographic communities can and should be recognized, they should not be placed into competition with the neighborhoods and their associations, or within the Office of Neighborhood Involvement. Geographic representation is a fundamental principle of American governance, and therefore, the focus must be on maximizing participation by excluded communities within the neighborhood associations themselves – not by placing the City’s “thumb on the scale” and diluting the authentic democratic participation of neighborhoods and their citizens with City-selected “non-geographic” entities.
Portland has an internationally celebrated neighborhood involvement system — but the evidence is that it has become complacent, stagnant and dysfunctional. Both the new mayor Wheeler and Commissioner Eudaly have been elected with a mandate for reform. The moment of opportunity is present, but limited. The time for reform has arrived.