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City Bureau Shuffle, Civic Life Listening Session

[Posted Tuesday, January 17, 2023]

Southwest Listening Session on January 24

Tuesday, January 24, 6:30-7:15pm

via Zoom

Meeting ID: 852 6580 0150.

Find your local number:

A January 3 email from the City’s Office of Civic Life extends the invitation to a Listening Session for residents of Southwest Portland and groups serving them. According to the email, “This listening session will ask diverse groups and individuals serving the Southwest community to provide feedback on their existing relationship with the City of Portland: What is working? What needs improvement?”

The listening session is a component of the Portland Engagement Program, described on the program FAQ webpage as “the opportunity for all Portlanders to work with the City to design a more equitable community engagement model to solve issues today and in the future.” Although the language is not specific, this would appear to be the latest try at revamping the City’s civic engagement structure, otherwise known as “neighborhood associations.”

Going back to at least 2005 with Mayor Tom Potter’s Community Connect initiative, the City has been struggling with how to modernize the more than 50-year-old system of neighborhood associations that constitutes the framework for residents to engage with local government.

The lack of direct representation inherent in our commission form of government (in which council members are elected at large rather than by district) lent the neighborhood association system particular importance, but over the years support for what was once an innovative and robust framework has diminished: Budgets for civic engagement shrank while criticism grew that neighborhood associations work better for the interests of white property owners over other groups.

The Office of Civic Life, formerly called the Office of Neighborhood Involvement, has been the home of both the neighborhood system as well as the agency tasked with overhauling citizen engagement. For the past several years many of those efforts have taken aim at the neighborhood association system. In 2018, under the leadership of then-commissioner Chloe Eudaly, Civic Life undertook a project to reform the city code governing civic engagement. While described as an effort to engage diverse groups, it was received by many as a move to sideline neighborhood associations and its spectacular failure arguably contributed to Eudaly’s re-election loss. Eudaly later suspended funding for SWNI, the coalition organization for all neighborhood associations in SW Portland, based on an unfavorable but strangely conducted audit. Former commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty continued the pattern of apparent hostility towards neighborhood associations, terminating the contract with SWNI completely.

Civic Life’s latest assignment to engage with Portlanders over engagement arrives at an interesting time, with charter reform coming in 2025 that will completely overhaul the structure of city government. Future city council members will be elected by zone, rather than at large, so that each quadrant of the city will have three direct representatives, as opposed to none.

To make things more interesting, with Mayor Ted Wheeler’s January 3 shake-up of city bureau assignments, Civic Life now has a new commissioner-in-charge. With the departure of Jo Ann Hardesty from city council, Dan Ryan has taken over the office.

Dan Ryan assumes the lead at Civic Life following several years of turmoil that have seen the impact of the bureau dwindle. Following on the heels of the code change failure, a devastating audit of the morale and working conditions in the department led to the firing of the bureau’s director.

Under the past two commissioners the department has shrunk both in number of staff and areas of responsibility. Many of its former functions have been moved to other bureaus. Liquor, cannabis and noise control programs are moving soon to the Bureau of Development Services, while last year the community crime prevention and graffiti removal programs moved to the city’s Community Safety Division and Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, respectively.

Programs remaining within Civic Life are related to community engagement, including the neighborhood program and the Portland Engagement Project.

In addition to the leadership change at Civic Life, all continuing commissioners were given new areas of responsibility, and newcomer Rene Gonzales received his initial bureau assignments. Mingus Mapps takes over the Portland Bureau of Transportation, among many other re-assignments for the commissioners. Both PBOT and Civic Life were previously under the purview of Jo Ann Hardesty. Ryan also assumes responsibility for the Department of Parks & Recreation.

Besides accounting for the turnover on the Council, the reshuffling was described in the City’s official announcement as preparation for the hiring of a city administrator in 2025 (by which date we will have a new mayor, as Wheeler’s second and final term ends in 2024).

Mapps’ new assignment as commissioner-in-charge of PBOT will be notable to critics of the SW Capitol Hwy Rose Lane. The bureau, while under Hardesty’s oversight, proved resistant to objections from local groups and residents that the new bus-and-turn-only Rose Lanes would hurt Hillsdale businesses and increase traffic on narrow local streets.

A long line of cars stopped on its way into Hillsdale.
SW Capitol Hwy has been reduced from one lane to two from Barbur Blvd to Sunset, creating regular back-ups like this. Photo courtesy of Don Baack.

Rose Lane opponents could have new reason for optimism with the change in leadership, which also includes the departure of the agency’s director, Chris Warner. Warner leaves PBOT for a post with Governor Tina Kotek’s administration.

—Valeurie Friedman


Any other thoughts on the issue of civic engagement or how the mayor's bureau re-assignments might impact Hillsdale? Let us know.


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