Letter from the LUTC ViceChair: City’s New Code Change Could Be a Game Changer for Neighborhood Associations

By Jonathan Konkol

The city of Portland is divided into 94 neighborhoods. Each, including Eliot, is represented by a volunteer board made up of people who live and/or work in the neighborhood. While neighbors have always organized with each other to gain strength in numbers when dealing with city government and supporting each other, City Hall created an official bureau to provide a mechanism for enfranchising communities. This was the result of a mandate for community involvement in the implementation of the Great Society programs for urban renewal, created in the late 1960s under LBJ. Among other things, these boards have played a key role in shaping local land use policy and implementation of City code.

Fast forward five decades to today and tensions have emerged between the leadership of some of the neighborhood associations and the City’s policy goals. Commissioner Chloe Eudaly’s office, which currently oversees the Office of Civic Life (formerly the Office of Neighborhood Involvement) has asserted that neighborhoods, in general, have become an obstacle to new development, and their boards are insufficiently diverse. Rather than working to improve the situation, they have proposed changes to city code to simply erase neighborhood associations from any official recognition.

The ostensible goal of the changes – increasing the representation of citizens of marginalized communities in civic life – is laudable. It is also true that some neighborhood boards have struggled with a lack of proportional representation. We have struggled with this problem in Eliot. We have also made efforts to diversify our board to truly represent our community and we have committed to an ongoing effort to build and maintain a board that looks like our community.

At this point in our history, our government should require neighborhood association boards to be representative; we wish to continue to have a codified voice in public decision-making, so some quid pro quo is appropriate. Rather than removing the entire system, City Hall can be a partner for change and improvement of neighborhood boards. Official recognition, staff time and funding should be tied to the adoption of standards for inclusivity of neighborhood boards. Boards should look like the communities they serve, and codifying this would achieve the City’s stated goals of inclusion. We can build on what we already have. Grassroots civic involvement has made our city stronger and can continue to do so, provided we work together with a common goal.

In an increasingly alienated and divided society, the antidote to alienation and basis of a healthy society is face-to-face interaction with those around us. This means strengthening and reforming the systems of governance that unite neighbors around the city. Working together with our neighbors, we form bonds that transcend race and class and help us form networks of trust and mutual support. We will need these networks when we face inevitable challenges such as the predicted 9.0+ mega quake by developing teams to organize and implement disaster training and also continue to maintain consistent committees for this and other ongoing issues.

The proposed code changes, which were slated to go before city council in August, have been pushed back to sometime in November. What can you do? Write to the Mayor, Commissioners and the Office of Civic Life to express support for an alternative that improves neighborhoods and strengthens us to do the work of community building.

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