[Posted February 26, 2021; Updated February 28, 2021]
At a meeting of the Board of Southwest Neighborhoods, Inc. (SWNI) on February 24, Commissioner Joanne Hardesty announced her decision to direct the Office of Community and Civic Life to take over the functions previously carried out by SWNI, citing concerns over mismanagement of taxpayer funds.
The decision came after months of turmoil for SWNI, including a critical audit, suspended funding, and internal strife.
Hardesty said the neighborhood associations in SW Portland will, effective immediately, depend directly on the office of civic life for services previously provided by SWNI, although there were few details about what services would actually be provided and how the process will work.
Many board members expressed dismay at the decision, while one or two expressed gratitude for the shake-up. One of the big questions from board members, most of them representatives of neighborhood associations, was about the insurance, financial services, and non-profit status currently furnished by SWNI. Commissioner Hardesty said the city would not be able to provide those services and that the neighborhood associations would have to identify new community partners for those.
Not mentioned at the meeting was the future of SW News, the monthly publication from SWNI staff providing residents with news and information from city offices, community organizations, SWNI committees, and neighborhood associations.
“While it is clear that Commissioner Hardesty has little confidence in the existing SWNI organization and officers, it is clear to me and virtually everyone in SW Portland that SWNI has delivered essential services in a timely and helpful manner. I have seen many good things come out of the united efforts that likely would not have happened without an organization like SWNI. The citizens of SW Portland are at a very important juncture and our task now must be to reorganize ourselves to be more equitable, more inclusive and fiscally responsible as we redesign our relationship with the city." —Don Baack represents the Hillsdale Business and Professional Association on the SWNI board.
SW neighborhood associations are facing a lot of unknowns: what will their new relationship with the city look like without SWNI as an intermediary? How will they continue to conduct the business of their neighborhoods in this new environment? Will Commissioner Hardesty call for fundamental changes to the civic engagement process in Portland?
Hillsdale Neighborhood Association President Tatiana Lifshitz sees the change as a chance to build something new. “We now have a wonderful opportunity for direct action and help in our neighborhoods and we should jump on this opportunity and go forward. Every neighborhood has the road wide open in front of them, they can have their own budgets and help from Civic Life and the city. A transparent relationship, a working democracy,” she said in an email.
Pending approval by the city council, two new staffers at Civic Life will be hired to support southwest neighborhood associations.
This decision makes southwest Portland the third quadrant of the city to lose their district coalition contract and have their functions taken over by the Office of Civic Life.
Commissioner Hardesty is holding a city-wide virtual open house for neighborhood association and district coalition members on March 9 from 6:00-7:30pm. Her official website describes the event as a “meet and greet opportunity for members of Portland's neighborhood associations to meet and ask questions to Commissioner Hardesty, who recently became the Commissioner in charge of the Office of Community and Civic Life.”
SWNI board members are now faced with a decision: does SWNI continue as an organization, possibly making a bid for a new contract in July, or call it quits?
See further coverage of this story by OPB and the SW Community Connection.
How do you think the city should encourage citizen engagement? Are neighborhood associations still relevant? Let us know.