The more I write about Portland politics, the more I’m convinced that many of the city’s long-standing inequity issues can be blamed on its wonky form of government.
Take the city’s latest equity conversation, which has centered on Portland’s majority-white, upper-middle-class neighborhood associations. These neighborhood associations are overseen by seven regional neighborhood coalitions (I know it’s confusing, but it’s not my fault), which give administrative support and grant money to the neighborhood associations that fall within their boundaries. Coalitions, which are funded by the Office of Community and Civic Life (OCCL), also lobby for their neighborhoods’ interests at City Hall.
City staff have struggled to determine if these coalitions are an important piece of the civic engagement process—or if they only serve as one more tool for affluent Portlanders to get City Hall’s ear. Commissioner Chloe Eudaly, who oversees the OCCL, recently proposed that, after renewing the coalitions’ contracts in June 2020, city staff take the next three years to investigate the actual need for these coalitions.
Unsurprisingly, neighborhood coalitions are alarmed by the city’s potential disinvestment in their work, arguing that their erasure could only worsen the city’s inequities. That’s because, thanks to the odd structure of Portland’s government, these coalitions are currently the only city program that represents the needs of people in certain geographic areas.
“We fill the gaps that the city’s created through lack of representation,” says Tom Griffin-Valade, the founder and former director of North Portland’s neighborhood coalition, North Portland Neighborhood Services.
He’s referring to Portland’s commission form of government—an outdated system in which city commissioners are elected through a citywide vote but aren’t expected to represent any specific region of the city. That means most victories go to whoever can afford to mount the most attention-grabbing campaign. And once in office, commissioners aren’t necessarily invested in the interests of any one part of the city. Thanks to these inherent flaws, Portland is the only major American city that still relies on this outdated form of government.
“In another city, we would be the office of a district representative,” says Northeast Coalition of Neighborhoods’ Mischa Webley, who supports the recently reignited campaign to replace Portland’s system of government. “If you take [neighborhood coalitions] away without changing our form of government, you are negatively impacting any Portlander’s ability to have a voice in the system—for better or for worse.”
Of course, no one elected Webley—or anyone employed by any neighborhood coalition—to represent their interests in City Hall. It’s likely most Portlanders aren’t aware of the existence, let alone purpose, of neighborhood coalitions. And it’s even more likely that these coalitions aren’t fairly representing the needs of their entire community.
Like many of Portland’s imperfect policies, neighborhood coalitions were created as a stop-gap solution to the greater injustices written into Portland’s core operating rules. It’s the same motivation behind the city’s attempt to limit campaign donations, the publicly funded elections program, and residential zoning reforms.
In Webley’s words: “It’s a flawed system, but it’s the one that’s there.”
As Portland attempts to repair decades of underrepresentation through a number of drawn-out, divisive, and piecemeal conversations about specific policies, it’s worth taking a more serious look at the city’s fundamental government structure—and asking if committing to a single big solution would be more effective than continuing to micromanage a bunch of smaller ones.