Danny Hellman
The Kenton Fire House stands quietly amid tree-lined North Portland streets, a turn-of-the century two-story brick building radiating a sense of history. But this quaint building was transformed last month into a "neighborhood center" and, in the process, has become a hornet's nest of controversy between residents and city hall.

At the heart of the debate is a pilot program introduced by council member Randy Leonard. Designed to be a one-stop shop for neighborhood support services--like crime prevention, fire inspectors, and general complaints--the plan is to create mini-city halls that serve as satellites in various communities. By placing offices in neighborhoods, the idea is to bring city services to the people who use them. On the surface, that concept may seem fairly benign, especially given that a recent survey reported that residents feel as if city services have slipped dramatically over the past five years. The survey, conducted by the city auditor, found that fewer than half the residents rank services as satisfactory.

But neighborhood activists are saying they don't want anything to do with the new project. They claim that neighborhood centers will effectively gut the Office of Neighborhood Involvement from its original, power-to-the-people purpose.

"Randy (Leonard) imposed this project without consulting us," says Charles Heying, a board member of the Mount Tabor Neighborhood Association and Associate Professor of Urban Studies at PSU. "He didn't make an effort to build the vision from the ground up and this is supposed to be about neighborhood involvement."

Heying believes the pilot project's introduction is an example of "weak democracy" in which neighborhood decisions are dictated from city hall instead of being initiated from citizens. This concept, Heying believes, flips democracy on its head by reducing citizens to mere service-takers, as opposed to policy-makers. Coming on the heels of a decision by city council to cap the Mt. Tabor reservoirs, the pilot project arrives at a particular sensitive time. In that still-brewing controversy, residents are furious they were never consulted about the decision.

Almost 30 years old, the Office of Neighborhood Involvement was originally a "democracy from the ground up" institution where citizens could run their neighborhoods the way they thought best. But now 80 percent of ONI's budget is spent on delivering basic city services and only 20 percent on neighborhood initiatives. "And that 20 percent is really spent more on block parties and neighborhood clean-ups," Heying points out.

"I think politicians don't like ONI because it's inconvenient," he adds, inferring it's easier to make unencumbered executive decisions instead of going through neighborhood channels. "The original idea behind the ONI coalitions was to keep them as non-profits not headed by the city. But Randy isn't interested in having people bring up initiatives. He's here to make decisions--the idea of a strong democracy isn't in his mindset."

One activist characterized Leonard as a bull in the neighborhoods' china shop. But Leonard sees it differently. He says he's trying to fix something he thinks is broken.

Characterized by officials as a one-stop service center, Leonard's office ultimately hopes to install half a dozen outposts around the city over the next few years. Leonard dismisses the critics as a few overly vocal activists who are afraid of losing power in their neighborhoods.

"I've noticed that most of the neighborhood associations look remarkably the same--white and middle class--and that alarms me," Leonard says. "We're hearing from a certain level of the community loud and clear but not the other part." Leonard says he wants to heal the rift between neighborhood associations and city hall by increasing minority involvement. Last Monday Leonard announced Jimmy Brown, who is African American, as the new ONI director.

Leonard is adamant that the outposts are the right direction for ONI; so much so that he's willing to bet money the program will revitalize ONI. "This will be the most popular program in the city," he assures. "It's just that change is hard for people."

If you care to wager that bet, contact Leonard at: rleonard@ci.portland.or.us.