New director Suk Rhee brings in refreshing values of diversity — but basic principles of geographic representative democracy seem to be lost in the shuffle
Previously we wrote about the disturbing name change of Portland’s Office of Neighborhood Involvement, to the “Office of Community and Civic Life,” — dropping the word “neighborhood” altogether. As we wrote, that’s not just a bit of feel-good cosmetics, but we think reveals a disturbing new low for Portland’s once-celebrated neighborhood association system. It also doesn’t seem to reflect a responsiveness to the scathing City Auditor’s Report of November 2016 — before new director Suk Rhee took the helm.
That report included a telling passage:
While some respondents noted that Council’s responsiveness varied by issue and by Commissioner, only 46 percent of the leaders said City Council is responsive to input from their neighborhood association.
“The City of Portland seems unconcerned about the perspectives of residents as reflected through their neighborhood associations.” – Neighborhood leader
That’s a pointed criticism, suggesting the need for reforms that restore and empower the neighborhoods as grass-roots channels within the City. The name change seems to go in the opposite direction — downgrading neighborhoods to become competitors with other voices that the City decides it wants to listen to. Whatever its altruistic intents, that is a top-down, command-and-control approach at best, and a formula for marginalization and muddle at worst.
But are neighborhood associations even relevant anymore? Aren’t they in decline, no longer representative (if they ever were)? Full of rich white NIMBY homeowners? Isn’t it time to move on, and listen to other voices?
The Portland neighborhood association system has been responsible for some of the City’s most important achievements, including its focus on walkable, transit-oriented, livable neighborhoods, its preservation of priceless historic assets, and its denial of some truly disastrous planned projects, for which we can all be grateful. The answer to a neighborhood system that is not as representative and accountable as it should be is NOT to throw neighborhoods under the bus — but to listen to the Auditor, and to reform the system. (And with respect to Commissioner Eudaly and Suk Rhee, it is not to put a naming band-aid on a much deeper structural problem.)
Here are a few of the reasons that neighborhood associations are critical, and need to be elevated — not marginalized:
a) Portland’s at-large commission system desperately needs a complement of geographic representation, especially for Eastside residents.
b) A truly “subsidiary” democracy (flowing from the grassroots) needs a voice for people AT the grassroots, namely from peoples’ own homes and neighborhoods.
c) All politics is local, and nothing is more local than neighborhoods.
d) If the City is committed to transparency and accountability, then it needs to empower its stakeholders, including neighborhoods, even if — especially if — they disagree with the City and seek to hold it accountable.
e) Neighborhood associations have a unique obligation of open participation, public meetings, public records, and transparent disclosure of potential conflicts of interest.
Other advocacy organizations can be exclusive — and many are, by their very nature. That’s often appropriate — but only geographic representative entities like neighborhoods can represent ALL the people who live there, regardless of any other factor. And as a city providing participatory funding, we have every right to demand that they do.
That’s a fundamental difference from other stakeholder groups, who — whatever their aspirations or outward appearances — are sometimes dominated by unaccountable interests of wealth or power.
Of course the City needs to listen to other stakeholders. (But not by crowding out geographically representative constituencies, AKA neighborhood associations.) Of course neighborhoods must be more representative and inclusive, reflecting income diversity, diversity of ownership, diversity of age, those with disabilities, people of color and/or diverse national origin, and others. But they must also be empowered to have real influence. The way to make neighborhood associations more relevant is… to make them more relevant, within real City processes.
My own neighborhood association board of Goose Hollow includes people from all of these populations (including a number of renters and low-income members), and we have taken a number of strong pro-active steps to be more inclusive.
Our Goose Hollow board has also taken a strong stand on the issue of ONI reform, well before Director Rhee came into post, and before the current name change and its disturbing portents. In March of this year we wrote a letter to the Commission and Director Rhee, reiterating previous concerns and expressing further concerns about the still-unmet — and increasingly urgent — need for thorough reforms of the agency. Here it is in full:
Dear Mayor Wheeler and members of the City Council,
The Board of Goose Hollow Foothills League has authorized me by unanimous vote to send the following letter.
It has been almost a year since GHFL forwarded a letter calling for the reform of the Office of Neighborhood Involvement (ONI), following upon the November 2016 audit, Community and Neighborhood Involvement: Accountability Limited, Rules and Funding Model Outdated.
We believe it is time to revisit this. First we note that few of the issues we raised last March have even come up at either ONI BAC or Directors and Chairs meetings. The exception occurred at 2 BAC meetings, where there were briefings on the changes required by City Council’s passage of ethics requirements at its 9 November 2017 meeting, and conflict of interest statements were then signed.
However, it is disturbing to experience the general disparagement of Neighborhood Associations that has become a narrative. This has been noted and examples given in the 29 January 2018 Minority Report re the requested ONI FY 2018-19 Budget, which was submitted by two of our members.
One might conclude from this rhetoric that the ONI Audit faulted the 95 Neighborhood Associations rather than ONI and its neighborhood involvement program. That would be quite a stretch, since all of Portland’s association boards and members are comprised of unpaid volunteers who do not administer tax dollars.
ONI’s new director spoke at the 12 October Directors and Chairs meeting of the need to “create a culture of civic involvement.” We agree with that, and it is what we and other Neighborhood Associations have been attempting to do (and to maintain) for some time. That was the aim of those associations before ONI came into being –and it was supposed to be the aim of the newly established bureau (then called ONA –Office of Neighborhood Associations) in 1974.
The original purpose of ONI was to support and empower its “customers” or “end users,” i.e., Portland’s Neighborhood Associations, so that they would, as grass roots agents of the most basic kind of democracy, “do their thing.” This “thing” was to protect and advocate for their neighborhoods, their health, livability, and sense of community. Good neighborhoods make good cities.
It was understood that this advocacy would bring them frequently into conflict not only with outside interests that threatened them, but with the city itself and its agencies. That was the whole point, as the issues and values they promoted could arise only from the grass roots, not from bureaucracy.
Bureaucracies, having no grass roots validation, are unlikely agents of democratic involvement, as their approach is inevitably a top-down one. We believe that approach to be divisive, fostering disempowerment, frustration, and sometimes anger. Following ONI’s founding, its history over the past decade and more has been to shed its original purposes and instead to have the effect of discouraging inclusiveness and participation in and by the grass roots. By the disenfranchisement outlined in the referenced Minority Report the grass roots are thrown into the compost pile. We would agree that it “strikes at the heart of participatory democracy, fosters concentration of power in coteries, engenders apathy in ordinary citizens, and devastates neighborhood involvement.”
At the same 12 October meeting, it was also admitted that “Public confidence in ONI is at an all- time low.” Further evidence of this appears in the Portland Mercury 2 February story re the attempt to re-brand the bureau: https://www.portlandmercury.com/blogtown/2018/02/02/19650970/office-of-beyonce- involvement-and-other-great-and-ignored-suggestions-for-renaming-oni
On this matter, we quote a respected colleague: “I’d resist any renaming that omitted the word ‘neighborhood.’ The fact is that place-based neighborhoods are at the center of Portland’s public involvement paradigm and to ignore that would be a serious error. 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.” It is essential that the City recognize the fundamental difference between communities of identity and geographic constituencies.
We also find it hard to understand ONI’s “flight from a core function…(originally the only function)” and strange that the bureau has thus far not involved the largest group of its end users in a reform process. Instead this has been kept within ONI and the coalition leadership, which is unlikely to produce reform. Nor is communication with the Neighborhood Associations taking place. Reports of BAC or Directors and Chairs meetings are not made and discussed at our own neighborhood coalition meetings, for instance.
We suggest there is a problem with any bureaucracy choosing to change its own responsibilities. This is backwards, a reversal of the UN-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.
A bureau exists to serve constituents and if it should choose not to perform core functions, it would be logical to expect that the agency would either cease to be or to have the funding for such function(s) taken back.
We have heard considerable sentiment among Portlanders that the latter should happen. At this point, however, we would prefer “…to see a fully reformed ONI, accomplished through the involvement of those it should serve, not simply staff and vested interests,” and not to relinquish the vision “…which was seen nationally as Portland producing a model of participation by grass roots democracy in the betterment of the city.”
We would also say that the ONI Audit does not level blame on the great majority of ONI staff and we believe them to be dutiful civil servants. Likewise, ONI’s past actions and the deficiencies enumerated in the audit did not happen on Suk Rhee’s watch, and we wish her well as her tenure begins.
Since we discuss many of the ways in which we feel the system has been failing, we believe we have a responsibility to suggest ways in which it can be reformed. Along with many other citizen advocates in Portland’s Neighborhood Associations, we have thought long and hard over what ONI has been and what it should be and we are prepared to share that and to work with our city so that it once again can be a model of grass roots advocacy and participation.
Sincerely, Michael W. Mehaffy, Ph.D. ,President, GHFL
Copy: Ms. Suk Rhee, ONI