Since bursting into public consciousness in July, a city proposal to revamp Portland's aging guidelines for the Office of Community and Civic Life (OCCL) has been met with strong opinions.
The plan, which would grant community organizations the same kind of representation as neighborhood associations in City Hall, was embraced by Portlanders who have long felt excluded from the neighborhood groups (whose memberships are often dominated by white, home-owning, middle-class residents).
But for those who believe neighborhood associations are the backbone of civic engagement, the changes felt like government censorship.
These proposed tweaks to OCCL's city code—guidelines that define a bureau's function—originated from a volunteer committee formed by the OCCL. But it's been City Commissioner Chloe Eudaly, the commissioner who oversees the OCCL, who's received the brunt of the public outrage.
After a firestorm of personal attacks, angry emails, and a coordinated effort to unseat Eudaly in her May 2020 reelection campaign, the commissioner is pumping the brakes. On November 14, Eudaly will present a resolution to Portland City Council that pushes a decision to change OCCL's code to November 2020 at the earliest, delaying a vote that was expected to take place before the end of 2019.
"What became really clear, was that even though the proposal was about adding voices and not removing the voice of neighborhood associations," says Winta Yohannes, policy advisor for Eudaly, "it still was creating so much anxiety about what that impact would look like."
While the delay may come as a victory for incensed neighborhood leaders, it guarantees the proposed changes will go further than its original goal. The resolution calls for the creation of a multi-bureau work group to create a plan to erase inequities within public involvement across city bureaus—not just within OCCL.
"What we’re doing is bringing the rest of council into the conversation," says Yohannes. "This extension gives room for a process."
If the resolution gains City Council approval, the work group will present their plan about the code change to City Council in November 2020. The next three years would be spent engaging with the public—including neighborhood associations—to fine-tune that plan before a June 2023 City Council vote. Here's a peek at that timeline.
Yohannes says one goal of the work groups is to truly understand the role the city's seven neighborhood coalitions, the nonprofits paid by the city to coordinate neighborhood associations in a special geographic area.
Their main job, Yohannes says, is to inform neighborhood associations about city policy changes and other city updates. But, while these coalitions were informed about the proposed code changes well in advance, Yohannes says some of them withheld the information from their neighborhood associations.
Thus, when the OCCL announced the proposal in July, many neighborhood associations felt blindsided.
Problems with neighborhood coalitions were already underscored in a 2016 city audit of the OCCL (then called the Office of Neighborhood Involvement). While Eudaly's office has been trying to improve transparency within these coalitions, Yohannes says the new game plan will move those conversations into the public sphere.
City commissioners will not be voting to pass the resolution at the coming November 14 meeting—that will be reserved for a future council session. Instead, city staff will present a new report on the purpose of the OCCL code change, introduce the resolution, and ask for public testimony.
Yohannes is confident this new process won't be met with the same resistance seen in OCCL's first code change push.
"There are lessons and things we could have done better, but I’m confident we’re getting to a good place," she says. "This process affirmed consensus for a more inclusive and equitable vision. This resolution offers us a path to get across the finish line."