One neighborhood association takes lonely stand against central authority
The city auditor’s report last November on the Portland neighborhood program was harsh, but most readers could be forgiven for not grasping its relevance to them.
It referred to disconnects between goals and work plans, inadequate performance reviews and similar topics that could be brushed off as mere paperwork.
Leaders of the Goose Hollow Foothills League see it in more tangible terms.
After a year of wrangling with the coalition of inner Westside neighborhood associations, of which they are members, they believe unaddressed philosophical issues underlie not only their local conflict but the corruption of Portland’s entire neighborhood system. The quarreling between Goose Hollow activists and coalition representatives isn’t fundamentally a matter of prickly personalities or inappropriate behavior, says the neighborhood association’s new president, Michael Mehaffy.
It’s the inevitable consequence of a system that’s forsaken its original and proper mission, Mehaffy says. His own neighborhood board is in full agreement, though his words have so far mostly fallen flat with other coalition members.
Instead of grassroots voices telling City Hall what they expect from local government, in this view, the city is handing down rules and restrictions that undercut neighborhood association autonomy. And the supposedly independent coalition offices funded by the city function as arms of government more than reflections of citizen initiatives.
After a retreat at which Mehaffy engaged the president of the Neighbors West/Northwest coalition, Felicia Williams, on their philosophical differences, he told his own board, “Her approach is symptomatic of what is happening in an inversion of the process.”
Responding to proposed changes that would establish job descriptions for board members and allow the coalition to expel any neighborhood association, Mehaffy said, “We create subsidiary organizations that are higher than we are.”
Mehaffy, who is the author of “The Nature of Cities” and is involved internationally in several sustainability and livability organizations, speaks of “subsidiarity,” a term familiar in United Nations circles as a precondition of healthy democracies.
“It boils down to the familiar idea that government derives its just powers from the consent of the governed, and from their informed participation at many levels, including the grass roots. The ‘higher’ levels of government are in fact subsidiary to the lower levels, and to the people themselves,” he wrote on his new website, livableportland.org.
“Under Portland’s current neighborhood involvement system, that principle has somehow become inverted. The neighborhood associations have become administrative subjects of the Office of Neighborhood Involvement and of the coalition system by which ONI administers its services.
“The money, insurance protection, websites and other benefits inevitably—intentionally or not—come with strings attached. There are subtle, and sometimes not subtle, exercises of political pressure and restraint on behavior from above. For a grassroots democratic organization, this amounts to a subversion of democratic autonomy and free expression.”
Mehaffy and GHFL board member Roger Leachman were alarmed at the retreat last month when Williams wanted to strike the terms “grassroots democracy” and “at the neighborhood level” from the coalition’s mission statement.
“This is not a political organization;, this is a nonprofit,” Williams said.
“That’s a very important point you just made,” Mehaffy replied. “I completely disagree with you, by the way.”
Williams did not respond to requests by the NW Examiner to clarify her position.
But coalition Secretary Les Blaize defended her position. He said governance of the coalition is separate from the neighborhood associations themselves, which are free to engage in grassroots political activity even if Neighbors West/Northwest does not.
That freedom was circumscribed in 2015, when the coalition censored the GHFL for criticizing Venture Portland’s support for a new business association in Goose Hollow. The coalition reasoned that the GHFL letter could have led to legal action and damages impacting all members of the coalition. Later, the coalition established the right to review actions of member associations that might trigger legal liability.
Under threat of expulsion from the coalition, the GHFL is working toward an accommodation regarding the coalition’s right to review legal actions contemplated by member associations.
At the retreat, Williams sought to sharpen the coalition’s authority over its members by seeking a bylaw amendment providing for removal of any association by a majority vote of the board.
This and other proposals raised at the retreat must be brought before the coalition for formal action before adoption.
Blaize considers the whole affair a “non-issue.”
Creating a job description for coalition board members is only reasonable, he said, because each member has a “duty of loyalty” to the board.
The counterpoint is that the coalition board is comprised of neighborhood association representatives, whose first loyalty is to their own neighborhood. The assumption that neighborhood allegiance is primary has been long recognized by a coalition policy requiring unanimous support from all member associations for any policy position taken by the coalition. That means no neighborhood representative can be compelled to stand behind a policy not reflecting its own interests.
In recent years, the unanimity requirement has been softened to require only majority support when critiquing city public participation processes. The slide from neighborhood autonomy to coalition pre-eminence, on at least certain topics, occurred without a broad discussion of the principles at play.
Until the Goose Hollow Foothills League got crosswise with its coalition partners, that is.
Blaize, however, seems to speak for most on the coalition board when he said, “I truly don’t understand what the conflict is, and it is annoying. … What was happening last night was a parsing of words. I think everything’s been blown out of proportion.”