Coalition president entangled in contradictions as she runs for City Council
When Felicia Williams warned neighborhood leaders last spring that their “brand” had fallen out of favor with City Hall, her audience might have assumed she thought that was a bad thing.
Williams, who chairs the coalition of Westside neighborhood associations, told representatives of the 12 member organizations that the Chloe Eudaly, new commissioner in charge of the Office of Neighborhood Involvement, was devoted to social equity and identity issues and “we’re going to run into a brick wall” in claiming to speak for geographic constituencies.
She also accused city officials of systematically eliminating neighborhood representatives from city-sanctioned advisory bodies and replacing them with individuals supporting their agenda, a process she labeled “cronyism.”
Williams’ tough talk at the April Neighbors West/Northwest meeting may have stunned coalition representatives, but there was no hint that she was not on their side.
“This is dire stuff right now,” said Les Blaize, a longtime representative of the Forest Heights Neighborhood Association. “We’re going back to the Dark Ages.”
Hilary Mackenzie, representing the Arlington Heights Neighborhood Association, said the change of direction would offer no platform for her neighborhood, comprised of single-family homes and hardly any renters.
Sixth months later, Williams is running for City Council, and the harsh assessments she made of neighborhood associations in April look less like her greatest fear and more like a personal opportunity.
At an Oct. 10 meeting of the ONI Bureau Advisory Committee, of which she is a member, Williams spoke favorably of the agency’s transition toward equity/identity issues as outlined by ONI’s new executive director, Suk Rhee.
“It’s not good for ONI to be identified with neighborhoods,” a source quoted Williams as saying.
Williams has without exception failed to respond to inquiries from the NW Examiner since becoming chair of the coalition in 2016. She was asked to confirm, deny or explain the quote above but did not reply.
One neighborhood association in her coalition has been in her crosshairs since she assumed the presidency last year: the Goose Hollow Foothills League. She has repeatedly threatened to demote or expel GHFL from the coalition, and she pushed a revision of coalition bylaws to allow such action by simple majority vote without a showing of cause.
The low threshold for censure met resistance, and the latest draft calls for a two-thirds majority, still a far cry from the existing requirement of unanimity for all policy decisions.
What does Williams have against Goose Hollow? In board discussions, she speaks of the necessity to address disruptive behavior at meetings. In October, she described the amendment as a tool to deal with representatives who “act like jerks all the time.”
In an opinion piece Williams submitted to the Portland Tribune in October, the roots of her antipathy were spelled out more specifically. It goes back to development of the 2015 West Quadrant Plan, the central city element of the pending comprehensive plan update, which has been tarnished by ethics charges brought against development professionals on the Stakeholders Advisory Committee that helped formulate it.
The complaint was upheld by the city auditor, who directed participants to declare their property interests and potential conflicts of interest. Five stakeholders failed to comply with the request from the director of the Bureau of Planning & Sustainability, including Dan Petrusich, a developer who was president of the Goose Hollow Foothills League before a group of residents took over the board in 2014.
Although not mentioning Petrusich by name, Williams tapped into that history in her opinion piece:
“Michael Mehaffy [current GHFL president] and others on the Goose Hollow Foothills League board have spent years attacking the former GHFL board members, especially the developers, who did not oppose the Block 7 [owned by the Multnomah Athletic Club] proposal.
“… It is unreasonable to dismiss the work of a large Stakeholder Advisory Committee that spent countless hours researching, discussing and reaching consensus on a long-term development plan for the West Quadrant. It is even worse to see that people who refuse to participate productively within the system are succeeding at undermining it, regardless of the cost to everyone else in Portland.”
Williams and the Downtown Neighborhood Association supported the West Quadrant Plan. She accused its critics, who faulted greater building height allowances, of having their own conflict of interest in seeking to prevent obstruction of views from their homes.
City Council candidate
Nothing in or after the piece disclosed that Williams had on Sept. 25 filed as a candidate for the City Council seat to be vacated by Dan Saltzman in 2018. Was she speaking in her role as a neighborhood association representative, which was how she was identified at the bottom of the article, or was this her first gambit as a citywide candidate, branding herself as a friend of developers willing to forsake her grass-roots constituency in favor of a more politically powerful base?
All of this was known or knowable when the coalition met Oct. 11. Williams made no mention of her City Council candidacy, and none of the other eight neighborhood representatives in attendance did either.
The issue was avoided even as Williams accepted a nomination to run again for the presidency of the coalition. She noted that she intended to step down in mid-year for reasons not divulged.
The slate with Williams name atop was approved, with a final vote set for the Nov. 8 coalition meeting.
Why no questions?
Why did no one ask about the ramifications of her campaign on her duties to the coalition? Could she fill both roles at once without compromising the coalition’s aims? Did her public statement suggest she now wants to be a best friend to developers by demonizing a neighborhood association to which she has a duty of loyalty? Why publicly launder what should be an internal matter with a member association? And why wouldn’t a person stepping into such treacherous waters not share her changing roles and shifting views with the body she represents?
We emailed Williams these questions but received no reply.
The coalition adopted duty of loyalty guidelines in 2016 that require neighborhood representatives to clarify their role when they speak publicly on topics related to their neighborhood positions. As president of the coalition, Williams’ essay in the Tribune could have been assumed to be the position of the coalition absent a clear statement that she was writing as an individual.
The piece was not authorized or even revealed to the coalition before publication.
Promise to raise issue
The Examiner also shared these concerns with coalition directors.
Hilary Mackenzie, who served on the election committee that recommended the slate with Williams as president last month, explained that no one else wanted to run for the top seat so she had no problem at the time with Williams continuing.
After being made aware of Williams’ opinion piece in the Tribune, Mackenzie said there should be a discussion about the issues raised by the Examiner before the coalition elects officers.
“This will come up at the next Neighbors West/Northwest meeting,” she said. “It’s something we need to talk about.”
Randy Weisberg of the Hillside Neighborhood Association said, “It would have been nice if she had disclosed that [she was running for City Council].
“I do think the board should discuss these matters, and I will raise the issue at the next meeting if I can attend,” Weisberg said.