City Council listens to public testimony at a Thursday meeting.
City Council listens to public testimony at a Thursday meeting. Alex Zielinski

City Council has hit the reset button on what’s been a fraught and divisive conversation about civic engagement in Portland.

At a Thursday Council meeting, City Commissioner Chloe Eudaly extended the timeline of a plan to update the Office of Community and Civic Life’s (OCCL) city code—a document that defines a bureau's key function—by at least one year.

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A large city-appointed committee, tasked with rewriting the 45-year-old code to be more inclusive of minority communities, had finalized the code language in July—and City Council was prepared for an October vote on the update.

The new code cut previous language that named neighborhood associations and business districts as the sole community groups that bureaus were required to share information with—and collect feedback from—when making significant city decisions. The committee had hoped that, by removing the special privileges for neighborhood associations from the code, the city would seek more input from minority community groups (ie: groups representing communities of color, immigrants, houseless citizens, disabled Portlanders, or LGBTQ+ residents)—along with the majority-white, affluent neighborhood associations.

“This is not a referendum on neighborhood associations. It’s asking, ‘What other groups haven’t been invested in by our city?’” said OCCL Director Suk Rhee at an earlier meeting. “When communities have not been named in policy and others have, that has had devastating impacts on their ability to be represented in this country. We have a moral obligation to remedy this.”

But after community members accused OCCL of intentionally excluding Portland’s 95 neighborhood associations from the rewrite process—and shirked public meeting laws along the way—Eudaly, who oversees the OCCL, introduced a new timeframe. Instead of rushing a Council vote, Eudaly has introduced a resolution directing staffers from multiple city bureaus to convene a year-long workgroup where they will draft citywide guidelines on how to equitably pursue public feedback on city decisions.

City Council won’t hear those recommended guidelines until November 2020.

“I’ve been encouraged to hear that my colleagues, community groups, and neighborhood associations all affirm that our civic engagement structures need to be more equitable and inclusive,” Eudaly said at the start of Thursday’s meeting, held offsite at North Portland's Self-Enhancement Inc (SEI). “The challenging question ahead of us is, ‘How do we get there together?’”

The meeting was meant as a forum for community members to comment on Eudaly’s new resolution before it headed to a City Council vote, meaning commissioners spent most of the two-and-a-half hour event quietly listening from some 50 constituents.

Most comments fell into one of two categories: either people expressing disappointment that the update had been delayed, or neighborhood association members urging commissioners to make the process more transparent.

“There have been twenty years of calls to improve civic engagement to include groups that have been historically marginalized and underrepresented,” said Molly Mayo, the former director of SE Uplift Neighborhood Coalition (one of seven coalitions that oversee regional clusters of neighborhood associations). “Let’s take that cycle of repeat and press forward.”

Mayo resigned from SE Uplift in September, citing challenges with the “outdated” code her organization had to adhere to.

“[I hope] this process continues to be an open and transparent process in the future so we don’t make the same mistakes as before,” said Amy Wilson, chair of the King Neighborhood Association.

Wilson was referencing a problem cited by several neighborhood associations during the recent code renewal process: that the city failed to alert neighborhood associations about public meetings on the code change, or upload meeting minutes or agendas on the OCCL website—which goes against state open meeting laws.

“It’s not surprising that a lot of people were upset,” Sean Green, vice chair of the Northeast Coalition of Neighborhoods, told the Mercury. “The end result is one thing, but the transparency of the process is another.”

Many shared this frustration with the opaque process leading up to Thursday's meeting.

“I feel like there’s two versions of trying to create change,” said Mike Linman, a board member of the Maplewood Neighborhood Association. “One being to divide and denigrate, and one bringing everybody together and everybody forward. And I’ve been concerned that the process up to this point has been more of the former than the latter.”

Linman told commissioners that he, like everyone on his neighborhood board, is in favor of updating the code.

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“But, what I am against is how we’re trying to divide and blame neighborhood associations for basically everything... they’ve become the scapegoat,” he said. “The fact as the matter is, I want this as much as anyone else.”

The Thursday meeting wasn’t an occasion for commissioners to comment on the proposed resolution—they’ll get that chance before voting on Eudaly’s resolution before the end of the year. But Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty made her priorities clear before the meeting wrapped.

“I am looking for a solution that doesn’t disvalue any member of our community,” Hardesty told the crowded room. “I will not support anything that divides our community more. We have enough of that at the national level, we certainly don’t need to be doing that at the local level.”