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Neighborhoods ponder EPNO change (again)


The neighborhood association chairs of east Portland met last month to consider whether to be served by a city bureau or to set up a nonprofit governed by themselves. Their conclusion - once again - was that they needed more information.

As Paul Leistner of the Portland Office of Neighborhood Involvement explained, the East Portland Neighborhood Office, 1017 N.E. 117th Ave., is one of two district neighborhood offices run directly by ONI. EPNO Director Richard Bixby is an employee of the bureau, answering directly to ONI Director Amalia Alarcon. The 13 east Portland neighborhood chairs meet regularly and offer Bixby advice, but he is not accountable to them.

“Technically, Amalia is the boss, but she relies on input from you (the neighborhood chairs),” Leistner said.

Nonprofit corporations that contract with the city to provide neighborhood services run the other five neighborhood offices. A professional staff runs each, but they are supervised, hired and fired by a volunteer board made up of representatives of the neighborhood groups served, as well as at-large representatives from business organizations and other interest groups. They must follow the terms of their contracts with the city, but within this they have broad power to operate as they choose, without permission from ONI.

As part of a nonprofit, “You have budgeting control, which can be a great thing, but you also have more responsibility,” said Leistner, who once served as board chair of the Southeast Uplift Neighborhood Program, the largest neighborhood coalition. He recalled that a few years ago, SEUL created a budget based on generating $60,000 through fundraising; when the group raised virtually none of this, they had to lay off some recently hired staff. “If you do budgeting based on known funding sources, there are no problems.”

Russell Chair Bonny McKnight, the principal advocate for a nonprofit model, said that being a city office made fundraising virtually impossible. One of her principal complaints was that city employees, as dictated by civil service, make more money than their counterparts in nonprofits, as well as more in benefits and pensions. This means that in such offices more of the budget is consumed by personnel costs, regardless of the wishes of the community leaders served.
Leistner conceded this and said, “If you were a nonprofit and you wanted to keep your director and fire everyone else, you could.”

In answer to questions, Leistner said that under a nonprofit, policies and direction are determined by the board, whose delegates are usually not the association chairs. An elected executive committee of four to five people usually does much of the actual work. Asked how neighborhoods could have input to the workings of these groups, he said that associations could advise their delegates how to vote on key issues.

The chairs received this information in different ways. Alesia Reese of Woodland Park said, “It seems like there'd be a layer between me and the coalition staff.”

Rosemarie Opp of Mill Park said, “I can see a whole lot of extra time to get things done. There'd be just another layer to keep track of.”

Conversely, Mark White of Powellhurst-Gilbert said, “What I hear is pretty much like what we have, except that the east Portland chairs have no power.”

McKnight added, “This is an opportunity to exercise real power.”

The discussion then revealed that Portland's existing neighborhood nonprofits differ considerably from each other. For instance, Central Northeast Neighbors, EPNO's most immediate neighbor, has had a fairly stable staff in recent years under Director Alison Stoll; Southwest Neighborhoods, Inc.'s Director Sylvia Bogert has held her position for 19 years. On the other hand, there has been a fair amount of turnover at SEUL and the Northeast Coalition of Neighbors. Asked what standards these groups use to measure success, Leistner said, “Each is different. Some don't have any.”

McKnight complained that she had difficulty keeping track of how EPNO funds are spent. Leistner said that she was not responsible for doing this, but that EPNO, like all neighborhood offices, is required to file quarterly financial reports, and that these could be provided to her. At this, Arlene Kimura of Hazelwood complained, “I don't want you clogging up my e-mail with this!”

Bixby admitted that in recent years he has not copied such reports to his chairs, and Valerie Curry of Argay complained that only once in six years has she been asked to contribute to a yearly evaluation of Bixby.

“You guys are setting the work plan,” Leistner said. Asked if Bixby could change it without consultation, he conceded, “Technically, yes.”

At the end of the session, Reese moved that the matter be tabled until more information could be obtained. This was carried by a vote of eight to four. Opp, one of the dissenters, said, “Some of us would like to have this voted on and not keep coming up.”
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