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Wednesday, October 8, 2003

Randy and the neighbors

My favorite Portland city commissioner, Randy Leonard, has stirred up a hornet's nest with his plans to revamp the city's "neighborhood involvement" office.

There's so much buzz surrounding this story that it's hard to sort out the facts, but my understanding of what he's proposing is to institute a "pilot project" that would (a) expand the duties of neighborhood liaison officials and (b) make neighborhood offices the focus of providing a number of city services, including property inspections, noise control, and collection of traffic fines.

What are the objections to this plan? The biggest sticking point is the proposed expansion of the duties of the 10 "crime prevention specialists" who serve as liaisons between the city's many neighborhood associations and the police. Leonard wants these officials to do more than they currently do, with the new duties to include monitoring and regulating the relatively few bad apples in the bar and tavern industry who create problems in the 'hoods. The current specialists aren't trained to do that, and so Leonard's decided to lay them all off, and open up the 10 expanded jobs to all prospective applicants, including the existing 10 if they want to reapply.

Needless to say, the specialists, who are unionized, and the neighborhood association folks with whom they have developed relationships over the years aren't thrilled with the prospect of their dismissal. So they're turning up the heat on Leonard. The other night I caught a call-in show on KBOO in which the African-American community of North and Northeast was starting to give him an earful on the subject, and there are pockets of outrage sprinkled around other parts of the city as well. (I turned off the KBOO show when some guy associated with the PUD movement called in to talk to Randy about Enron.)

For what it's worth, yesterday The Oregonian sided with the commish in an editorial, which included these comments:

The value of neighborhood involvement in Portland goes beyond whether neighborhood associations succeed in persuading the Portland City Council to do one thing or another.

Harvard sociologist Robert D. Putnam and co-author Lewis M. Feldstein theorize in the 2003 edition of their book, "Better Together," that Portland's tradition of neighborhood involvement sparks activism on many other levels.

Leonard is not trying to detract from that tradition. He's trying to revitalize it by bringing in something it very much needs -- new citizens, new ideas, new energy, new batteries.

My own take on the neighborhood associations is that they do a wonderful job of bringing the most activism-inclined neighbors together on a limited set of concerns and projects. And the good that they do is all thanks to the public spirit of the association members, who do their work without pay. In many cases, they succeed despite the municipal government, and for the life of me I couldn't tell you what we're spending $5 million a year in scarce tax revenues on in the neighborhood involvement office. For that kind of dough, the neighbors ought to get some meaningful service out of the city, which it seems to me is just what Leonard is proposing.

The most important thing to note about the neighborhood associations, however, is that they're at their best when they're telling the bureaucrats and prima donnas down at City Hall what they're doing wrong. Particularly when some jerky property owner is proposing to site a pigsty in a residential zone, neighborhood groups come together quickly and make sure that the neighbors' voices are heard. They pressure the City Council to defend the neighborhoods against inappropriate intrusions.

And just about everyone in city government seems to resent that. I remember a few years back, ex-Commissioner Mike "I Fired Kroeker" Lindberg told the media that neighborhood associations were too fixated on land use issues, and that they were holding the city back. Bullsh*t, Mike. That's exactly what they're there for.

By and large, the politicians of Portland are like virtually all the politicians of Oregon: They're all for public involvement, so long as the public is telling them what they want to hear. Neighborhood association input to the city is like all the ballot measures we vote on: If the politicians like the message, they get all misty and pledge their allegiance to the sacrosanct will of the people. But if they don't like the message, they just ignore it. Convention Center expansion, north side light rail -- both were voted down, but the mayor and council built them anyway. And so it goes with methadone clinics, gangster halfway houses, cell towers, group homes for the dangerously mentally ill -- the neighborhood associations all say no, but the city usually allows the inappropriate land uses anyway. Try cutting down a tree in your yard, though -- the City of Portland will work you over good on that one! They've got 10 stories of Planning Bureau functionaries to keep an eye on that.

Leonard's critics are saying that his plan will bring about, in The Oregonian 's words, "top-down dictation from the City Council with dissent squashed and neighborhood voices ignored."

With all due respect, folks, that's largely what we have now, at least in tough cases where the chips are down. Ask the Buckman neighborhood, which has more high-impact social service facilities per capita than probably any other neighborhood on the West Coast. Ask the Lair Hill neighborhood, whose privacy and peace is about to be destroyed by the Katz-Goldschmidt-Hatfield-Homer Aerial Tram. Ask the folks on Mount Tabor, who want their historic park preserved and don't buy the 9/11 rhetoric that veils the inside-deal pork project of covering the reservoirs. You can even ask the West Hills folks who live across from the upcoming Holocaust Memorial, or the ones who opposed the Gabriel Park swimming pool. If I'm not mistaken, all those neighborhood associations said no, but the City Council said, "Tough noogies."

That being the case, maybe it's time for the neighborhood micro-governments to start doing more than grinding their teeth about the crap that's being handed them from downtown. Maybe there ought to be mini-city offices in a dozen or so locations around Portland.

We used to have them, and once upon a time they were open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

As I recall, they were called "police precincts."

I'm willing to give Leonard the benefit of the doubt on this one. But I am a little worried about his rhetoric about the associations generally. He says he makes "a distinction between people active in neighborhood associations and neighborhoods." That may be a very valid observation -- some of the perennial neighborhood association officers I know don't seem to have anything better to do than go to meetings, and a few haven't had a new idea since the late '60s. But the words Leonard used in that quotation are fighting words. And they're right in line with the contempt shown by Lindberg and others for the public process.

If you're going to bask in the glow of the neighborhood associations when they agree with you, then you also have to be very nice to them when they don't. It's all part of the fun of being an elected official in our little piece o' paradise.

Comments (2)

Excellent analysis. I greatly appreciate your balanced view point. The points of concern re: my comments are also well taken. The expansion of ONI services has hit a nerve with some (many, many more within the neighborhood assns. enthusiastically support the concept) and I have at times expressed my frustration with some in the associations out loud. Not very politic and I am working on it.......Commissioner Randy Leonard

I'm the world's biggest hothead, and so I empathize. Stay cool.

For what it's worth, the mini-City Hall idea reminds me of some of the better aspects of the recent initiative to elect the City Council by district. I liked the idea of having city offices in the neighborhoods, particularly now that the police stations are 9-5 operations.

Sometimes I speculate that it would be better to reopen the precincts 24/7, and put these specialists and other city services in those buildings with hours making them equally accessible to busy working people -- like 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. and a few hours on selected Saturdays.

In any event, the DMV and DEQ have done a pretty good job of making it easier for us drivers to deal with them. City bureaus could do the same if they'd get off their duffs.


Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Randy and the neighbors:

» 'Oregonian' Weighs In On Neighborhood Involvement As Chief's Forum Questions Commissioner Leonard from The One True b!X's PORTLAND COMMUNIQUE
There are a couple of items in today's Oregonian centering around the role of the relationship between the City and its neighborhoods. First up, Commissioner Leonard received further questioning of his plans for ONI's crime... [Read More]

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