[Posted February 12, 2021; Updated February 23, 2021]
Southwest Neighborhoods, Inc. (SWNI) has been running on fumes since its funding was suspended last summer. In January their board of directors made the difficult decision to lay off all staff, keeping just the bookkeeper for a few hours a month. But even the bookkeeper may have to go without an infusion of fresh donations.
SWNI is an independent non-profit, one of seven district coalitions contracted by the city’s Office of Community and Civic Life (OCCL) to provide a communication pipeline between the city and residents. Here in SW, SWNI provides support, insurance and administration services to 17 neighborhood associations and such committees as Watershed, Transportation, Equity and Inclusion, and Schools, helping SWNI in its mission to improve liveability in SW Portland.
Before layoffs, paid staff included an executive director, bookkeeper, and five additional staff members. A volunteer board consisting of officers and neighborhood association and committee chairs directed the staff and continues to meet
Except for bookkeeping, the business of SWNI is currently limited to services it is able to provide with volunteers.
Internal struggles have plagued SWNI over the past year, with conflicts among board members leading to contentious records requests and lawsuits. Last July, those internal issues caught the eye of then-Commissioner Chloe Eudaly, who may have seized on SWNI as the poster child for the ills of the neighborhood-based system of civic engagement she had previously failed to reform.
(Back in 2018, Eudaly, as the commissioner overseeing the OCCL, was charged with developing a plan to make Portland’s civic engagement policies more inclusive. Her plan failed when introduced in 2019 and was withdrawn. Many criticized it as poorly conceived and lacking a transparent process.
Fast forward to last summer. Based on the still-unresolved records request, Eudaly persuaded the city council to withhold SWNI’s funding (all the other District Coalitions were approved for funding). An audit of SWNI was commissioned, suggested by then-Commissioner Amanda Fritz as a path to potentially restoring the organization’s funding.
As they waited for the audit to be completed, the SWNI board reduced staff hours and used reserves, donations, and a federal Payroll Protection (PPP) Loan to maintain operations at a reduced level.
The audit, when published in November of last year, was not good. SWNI had misused funds, not exercised sufficient financial controls, and more, alleged the auditors. The SWNI executive committee criticized the audit as biased and misleading and requested an opportunity to respond.
Eudaly’s response came in December. In one of her last acts on the city council after losing her bid for re-election, she attempted to strip SWNI of its funding and award it instead to a different organization, SE Uplift. Her motion failed, provoking a tirade from Eudaly, followed by a rebuke from Mayor Wheeler, who characterized her motion as “rushed,” “sloppy” and “divisive”. Among other problems with the proposal, Wheeler pointed out, was that it was unclear that SE Uplift wanted the contract or was even legally allowed to provide the services therein. Commissioner Dan Ryan commented, “We have an audit . . we have an opportunity to let the organization [SWNI] improve from those findings.”
The meeting, and the year, ended with no resolution for SWNI.
Eudaly’s term on the city council ended on December 31st. Commissioner Joanne Hardesty has now replaced Eudaly at the helm of the Office of Community and Civic Life, itself the subject of an ongoing audit by the city attorney’s office to investigate numerous workplace complaints.
At a recent meeting with the SWNI Board, Hardesty said she is “doing her due diligence” to familiarize herself with the workings of OCCL. She expects, she said, to make some changes at the bureau before deciding on whether there is a path for SWNI to receive the rest of its funding for the fiscal year.
SWNI, says its Board President Leslie Hammond, is ready to evolve to meet the needs of the city and the neighborhoods. The board has sent a ten-point plan and cover letter to the city commissioners as a starting point for a conversation with Hardesty and the rest of the council, laying out opportunities for improvement in fiscal responsibility, transparency, equity and anti-racism, communication, collaboration, and staffing. A retreat is planned for February 20th, with an agenda that includes discussion of ways to continue to support the city's goals for civic engagement and the needs of SW neighborhoods during the pandemic.
It’s likely that at some point work will resume on changing the code that determines how the city engages residents. Some SW residents are already thinking ahead to that day: In a December letter to Mayor Wheeler, Hillsdale Neighborhood Association board members Don Baack, Glenn Bridger, and Tatiana Lifshitz proposed forming a transformation committee that, using SW as a pilot case, would develop a new “community-based collaborative model based on direct civic engagement, collaborative effort, equity, information sharing.”
Hammond says donations continue to come in, which should allow SWNI to operate at the current reduced levels through March. But after that, the board will be posed with a quandary: if SWNI runs out of money and is forced to shutter operations completely, will there still be a SWNI to come back to if and when funding is restored? And where does that leave the voice of SW Portland residents?
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