Vol. 25, No. 3 • Mailed monthly to over 13,500 homes in the Gateway & Parkrose Communities Free • July 2009
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Neighborhood doyenne leads overthrow

Neighborhood leaders consider independent coalition


Richard Bixby, nine-year director of the East Portland Neighborhood Office - a City of Portland position - could lose his job if a majority of the 13 neighborhoods represented by EPNO vote - in September - to dissolve their current form of organization in favor of a coalition style of neighborhood office operation.
The East Portland Neighborhood Office -- like the city’s six other local neighborhood offices -- is unique in its own way. Some of the people it serves think it should be somewhat less unique.

EPNO, as it is known, is a branch of the city’s Office of Neighborhood Involvement. Its executive director, Richard Bixby, answers directly to ONI Executive Director Amalia Alarcon. The chairs of the 13 neighborhood associations the office serves meet monthly, sometimes take common stands on matters of mutual concern and give their input on how the office should be run. However, legally, any decisions they make are purely advisory; Bixby can take a contrary direction and, on at least some occasions, he has.

This is more or less true of the North Portland Neighborhood Office. It is not the case with the other five offices ONI services.

Russell Neighborhood Chair Bonny McKnight has longed chafed under the current arrangement, and has called for a reexamination of the EPNO office setup. The East Portland District chairs will discuss the matter at their Sept. 2 meeting.
McKnight has two principal issues for the record: the general issue of authority and accountability, and the specific issue of the amount Bixby and his staff are paid. Bixby says his pay is comparable to that of directors in other offices but, as is usually the case with government and nonprofit employees, he receives far more in benefits than they do. As to control, McKnight argues that it is crucial to have staff that responds to you, not another set of government employees you have to deal with. The city, she argues, should work to retain the original independent model, using city-run offices only in an emergency and only as a temporary measure. And if there isn’t a preference for the independent model among the people to be served? “The city can make stipulations in its contracts,” McKnight said.

She has at least one ally in Powellhurst-Gilbert Neighborhood Association Chair Mark White. “Richard gets all these directives to do things from City Hall, and he has no time left to do what we need him to do.”

In a scheme devised by ONI’s first director, Mary Pedersen, independent nonprofit corporations that contract with the city to perform this task of operating the neighborhood office, and receive appropriations from ONI to do it, run them. The boards consist of delegates (usually not the chairs) of the neighborhood associations and are chaired by the city office, plus other at-large members representing business associations and other interest groups. Although these district coalitions are bound by many stipulations in their contracts, and by ONI’s guidelines for associations and coalitions, they have broad power to operate the office and direct staff as they see fit. Office staff is responsible to them, not to ONI or any other government entity, and the board can hire and fire the staff. The board usually delegates to the executive director day-today supervision of the office and other staff. The ONI Director sometimes plays an advisory role in the hiring of neighborhood office directors, but the neighborhood groups, through their delegates, are the bosses.

Pedersen’s intent with this model was to give the city enough control to ensure that the offices fulfilled their broad intended purpose, but to also make coalitions and their staffs free of day-to-day City Hall politics and responsive to their local communities.

In the late 80s EPNO began this way, as an entity under the supervision of the East Portland District Coalition, with Bixby becoming its director after six-years as its crime prevention coordinator. However, in the mid-1990s, a pair of extreme agitators, Pat Rice and Karen Rutledge, took over the Parkrose Neighborhood Association through harassment (Demanding, “every scrap of paper relating to neighborhood business” for the previous thirty months within five days of notice), intimidation (screaming, name-calling, physical menacing, threats) and disruption tactics (At meetings, conduct shouting matches during meetings ignoring chairs’ calls to order, making it impossible to conduct meetings). Using this as a base to put similar pressure on an EPDC board that was already experiencing internal conflicts, with the aim of taking over the coalition. They were partially successful. Gradually, those who sided with Rice and Rutledge, those who were dissatisfied with the organization’s operations for other reasons, and those who were simply sick of the shouting and arguments reached a critical mass, and in 1996 a majority of the board voted to dissolve the coalition. However, Rice and Rutledge could never complete their plan because they could never muster the support of two-thirds of the neighborhood groups involved, a condition then ONI Director Diane Linn (before her rise to Multnomah County Chair) demanded as a prerequisite for reestablishing the coalition. Eventually Rice and Rutledge gave up and turned their Blitzkrieg methods and attention to controlling the Parkrose School Board and EPNO remained under city control.

Hazelwood Neighborhood Association Chair Arlene Kimura isn’t convinced, feeling that the coalition model would be a giant layer cake in which volunteers would have to do a lot more work to get things to happen.

“I think both models can work,” Bixby said. “The nonprofit model requires volunteers to spend more time managing the organization. One of the problems with the old EPDC was that they weren’t able to do this effectively, because they were unable to develop a solid organizational core. Lots of nonprofits have trouble maintaining their organizations for that reason. In a nonprofit, volunteers are responsible for keeping track of operations. In a bureaucratic model, staff must answer to a paid superior. To some extent we have to abide by both models, and that creates extra work.” Informed of White’s complaint, he said, “I don’t see a lot of time spent here (responding to city requirements) that wouldn’t be required of an independent contractor.”

Other neighborhood chairs are currently on the fence. Mary Walker of the Parkrose Neighborhood Association said, “I need more information before I can make a decision. I want to do what’s in the best interests of the community, and I don’t have the information to do that yet.” Carol Williams of Parkrose Heights had similar sentiments: that she didn’t have enough information to make an informed decision.

The historical record gives support for both positions. Quite frequently neighborhood office directors, particularly in the early days of what was then the Office of Neighborhood Associations, could point to their independence from City Hall as the reason they could do some of the work they did. The recently deceased Jeraldine “Jerry” Mounce, the first director of the Neighbors North office, spoke of once getting a phone call from Mayor Neil Goldschmidt in which the mayor said, “You’re stepping on toes, and they belong to me.” Mounce told him, “I don’t work for you.”

On the other hand, all coalitions have had their share of drama over the years. Some east Portland neighborhoods look longingly at their nearest neighbor, the Central Northeast Neighbors office. However, three of the office’s original neighborhood groups -- Alameda, Grant Park and Sullivan’s Gulch -- moved to the Northeast Coalition of Neighborhoods. A variety of reasons were given for wanting the change, but in fact a major one was the dysfunctional nature of the CNN office and coalition at the time. Two of the Southeast Uplift Neighborhood Program’s neighborhoods -- Lents and Pleasant Valley -- broke away to join EPNO. Again, geography was given as the reason at the time, but longtime Pleasant Valley leader Linda Bauer later said, “We’re getting all the services now that we never got from Southeast Uplift.” That coalition is instructive in another way as well: in the last 15 years, it has had an unusually high staff turnover. Many of those who left did so to take positions with city bureaus, so much so that some observers have taken to call SEUL “a revolving door training ground for the city.” The relative rates of pay and benefits are certainly factors in these moves.

“My experience with the coalition model wasn’t great, and so I may be tainted,” Bauer said. “I’d say that either one can work if they’re done properly. The status quo works for me.” However, she doesn’t rule out the change McKnight proposes. “I’d need more information,” she said.
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