Former Northwest activist, City Council member Margaret Strachan says associations should be risk-takers
(See web-only commentary at end of article)
Portland’s famed neighborhood system sprang from Northwest Portland, and from the start, its leaders feared the corrupting influence of city funding.
The best known of these pioneers, Bud Clark, a reluctant activist who later became the city’s mayor, found the idea of fighting city hall while tied to city hall purse strings paradoxical at best.
“I moved into the neighborhood in 1968,” wrote Clark last month in an email to the NW Examiner. “I think it was 1969 when [Portland mayor 1993-2005] Vera Katz, who lived across the street from me on 25th, tried to recruit me into the new neighborhood association, the NWDA [Northwest District Association]. I was very cynical at that time in my life and felt there was no way you could fight city hall.”
His reticence soon vanished when the Bureau of Planning director announced at a public meeting that “these old buildings must come down” to make way for urban renewal.
The newly formed Northwest District Association soon became a force. NWDA blocked renewal plans that would have demolished much of the district around and north of Legacy Good Samaritan Medical Center. It also stopped the Oregon Department of Transportation’s scheme to extend the I-405 freeway along a two-block swath between Northwest Thurman and Vaughn streets.
In NWDA’s early days, it was entirely funded by donations and small fundraising projects, said Clark, who was then the organization’s treasurer. The modest income flow was enough to open a Northwest 23rd Avenue office and staff it part time.
While the city moved toward a citywide system under the Office of Neighborhood Associations in the 1970s, Clark clung to the grass-roots financial model. His solution was creating a monthly newspaper as a project of NWDA.
“That’s another reason I started The Neighbor,” he wrote. “It was because the NWDA was to become a part of the city, giving up its independence. … I thought The Neighbor could support that independence.
“If the city was our opponent; why join them?”
NWDA’s paid organizer, Mary Pedersen, became the director of the Portland Office of Neighborhood Associations, created by City Council in 1974. ONA offered grants to neighborhood coalitions in sections of the city. That’s when Neighbors West/Northwest was founded, and it has operated on an annual contract with the city ever since.
Edgar Waehrer, the only surviving NWDA founder, hasn’t been directly involved with the association for a number of years, but he still lives in the district and follows the association’s progress.
Waehrer, who had a term as president in the approximately 10 years he was on the neighborhood board, recalls NWDA’s clout with city officials.
“You felt as though you could have a direct line into City Hall and the City Council,” he said. “There was a lot of empowerment … and it was very rewarding for those involved.”
Although Neighbors West/Northwest was launched during his years of engagement, he didn’t pay much attention to it.
The coalition is now asserting authority to muffle member neighborhood associations on the grounds that their confrontational activities may trigger lawsuits and thereby impact the insurance policy covering all coalition members. The Office of Neighborhood Involvement (renamed in 1995) supports NWNW’s right to discipline or expel a member association.
The Goose Hollow Foothills League has been threatened with expulsion by NWNW President Felicia Williams over public stances league leaders say are matters of local autonomy. Williams has issued revisions to NWNW bylaws allowing removal of an association’s voting rights for any reason by majority vote of the board.
Waehrer is troubled by the slide toward central control and city influence limiting topics a neighborhood association may address.
“Every neighborhood should fight that,” he said. “It interjects another layer between the neighborhood and the city.”
Margaret Strachan, who ran the coalition office in Northwest Portland in the 1970s before serving on the City Council 1981-86, now lives in Montana. But she keeps in touch with city affairs. She and her husband, Sumner Sharpe, have supported Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler since the beginning of his political career.
Strachan minced no words in deconstructing the current conflict between the Goose Hollow Foothills League and Neighbors West/Northwest.
“If a neighborhood cannot advocate for what they believe is right and express free speech, what’s the point of a neighborhood association?” she asked. “That’s what they’re supposed to do.”
Strachan was not impressed with the rationale that insurance considerations justify other associations in a coalition reining in an association that targets businesses or other political players.
“If Goose Hollow wants to be risk takers,” she said, “they should be risk takers.”
The braintrust of city’s neighborhood system gets it wrong
By ALLAN CLASSEN
Paul Leistner, who wrote his doctoral dissertation on the Portland neighborhood system while working for the Office of Neighborhood Involvement, is confident he knows the system’s rules and history.
As the ONI neighborhood program coordinator at a time when the agency’s director of 11 years has resigned, Leistner is now the city’s answer man on matters of neighborhood policy. ONI’s interim director, David Austin, told the NW Examiner that Leistner has a Ph.D and ample experience, so he trusts his recommendations.
However, on a pivotal topic now before ONI—the authority of city sanctioned neighborhood coalitions to expel member neighborhood associations—Leistner relied neither on historic footings nor deep analysis. He borrowed a simple tautology that could be summarized as “easy come, easy go.”
“The relationship between a neighborhood coalition and a member neighborhood association is a voluntary relationship that requires agreement by both organizations,” Leistner advised Neighbors West/Northwest.
Therefore, he reasoned, a coalition can remove any member neighborhood association it chooses without cause.
Leistner errs in contending that Portland’s neighborhood coalitions were freely formed by neighborhood associations without interference by the city, an unfounded assumption based on four Portland neighborhood pioneers we interviewed last month.
But even granting Leistner’s assumption about voluntary formation, his claim falls under its internal contradictions.
Without the backing of city code or documentation of any kind, Leistner claims freely assembled entities can be freely disassembled. The larger world is full of examples to the contrary. That’s why people sign contracts, after all: to bind parties from disengaging from a relationship at will.
Thirteen American colonies agreed to form the United States, for example. While southern states later and unsuccessfully asserted their right to leave the union, Leistner’s thinking goes further, to unilateral expulsion. Kicking a state out of the United States is so unthinkable that no political faction even suggests such a possibility.
Yet Leistner, somehow, believes that such a right pertaining to Portland neighborhoods is “clear.”
If coalitions across the city cast off their most unpopular associations, we could have a crazy quilt of scattered associations unable to connect with each other in a practical coalition or for the city to effectively serve. Members of these associations would then be denied equitable treatment by the city …. all because other associations disapproved of them in some way. If the disenfranchised were of a particular race or ethnic group, the ramifications would erupt far beyond the neighborhood system.
Leistner seems to draw on the rationale that voluntary relationships ensure fairness and prevent coercion. While the power to expel an organization is a freedom on one hand, it’s the epitome of coercion for the expelled organization. When organizations form a new entity, and that new entity takes on powers not agreed to or envisioned at the time of its creation, that situation can no longer be brushed aside by the easy come, easy go philosophy.
Southern plantation owners used to claim that the right to own slaves was a freedom, but of course, their “freedom” was tied to the most utter loss of freedom for their slaves. Two inseparable sides of the same coin.
Leistner’s logic leads into thickets one would think a person familiar with the neighborhood system would better appreciate.