In most large cities in this country, the city government includes council members who are elected from different districts in its constituency. The idea is that all residents will have at least one advocate on the City Council, and all districts will be represented.
Portland is the outlier – with a “commissioner” form of city government that is seldom associated with large cities. In the past, there have been ballot measures seeking to convert our city government to a more representative form – but, to date, they have all been defeated. We suspect that is partly because we all like our city’s quirkiness; and probably partly because we did not perceive that our current form of government wasn’t working.
And one of the major reasons it worked was that the city government actually wanted to represent all its districts, and thus established a “Neighborhood” system of representation. Portland has had, for decades, a system of volunteer-operated Neighborhood Associations – some 95 of them, representing all districts of the city – and ByLaws requirements for these associations which require open meetings, and equal representation of all those living in each of the districts served.
These Neighborhood Associations have a voice at the city, although they cannot bring about any action by themselves at the city level; and they have received official support through the Portland Office of Neighborhood Involvement, and a system of nonprofit “Coalition” organizations designed to assist in the interface between city and neighborhoods, and to support Neighborhood Associations. In Southeast Portland, the Coalition is called “Southeast Uplift”.
The Neighborhood Association system has had the pleasant side effect of helping the many sections of this major city to feel like villages, thus making Portland seem more like a small town with big city conveniences – pretty unique for a city our size, in our own experience. In fact, that is one of the big reasons your editor chose this city, even giving up his rather nomadic profession, in which to settle down and spend the rest of his life.
Now – apparently driven by one Portland City Commissioner in particular, Chloe Eudaly – it seems Portland is on the verge of suddenly having the least representative city government of any big city in the United States – retaining the “commissioner” form of city council, still with no district representation involved in electing Commissioners, while doing away with any official role for the Neighborhood Associations which have provided a system by which every resident has had a voice in city government.
The first hint of a worrisome change came a year ago when the name of the Office of Neighborhood Involvement was changed to the Office of Community & Civic Life in an “emergency ordinance” passed by the Portland City Council. This was followed by wholesale staff changes for what was the Office of Neighborhood Involvement – and a scrupulous scrubbing of the word “neighborhood” from any official description of what the new Office of Community and Civic Life is intended to do.
With the change comes no new conduit for every resident of the city to provide recognized district input to the city – other than just sitting in City Council meetings and hoping for a minute or two to express an idea that may not even be commented on by the Commissioners before they proceed with whatever they are doing (a rather unsatisfying option that has always been there).
Obviously, relatively few residents of the city are likely to take the time and make the effort to trek to Portland City Council chambers in the wan hope of perhaps receiving a minute or two to address the Commissioners.
Will the Neighborhood Associations go away? Many will not; hopefully most will not, since they continue to act as nonprofit advocates for bringing about good things in their own neighborhoods, whether the city chooses to notice or not.
And, of course, there is always the possibility that a later City Council may realize that this system which has worked so well in providing input to Commissioners from all corners of the city should be revived, in the absence of any other means of direct representation of all Portland residents.
In the meantime, though, the proposed new changes in the city code would strip the Neighborhood Associations of any formal relationship with the city, and any legal mandate for open meetings and other related requirements – and also remove any system of receiving city grants for beneficial local projects. Those associations continuing to serve their neighborhoods will have to develop their own resources for locally-needed projects, making them more like service clubs.
Will Portland see its unique character fade, and become just another monolithic big city? Would you want it to?
Do you remember why the American Colonies rebelled against the British Crown, and began the process of becoming the country we are today? It was all about a lack of representation! (“No taxation without representation” was a key rallying cry.) Indeed, the American Congress, and the State Legislatures, all follow a constitutionally-mandated system of geographical representation, intended to make sure all citizens in all states have a representative they have elected specifically to represent them.
If the Portland City Council does actually take the bizarre and draconian step of voting to end the only system they have of channeling district-oriented input from its residents to its leadership – a vote currently expected to take place in about a month – perhaps it is now time for us all to rise and mount a new and successful effort to establish a truly representative city government for the City of Portland.