How do citizens without legal training or urban management skills challenge a system whose officials are invested in maintaining control and keeping the structures of power unchanged and unchangeable? Technically, any citizen is entitled to challenge rules or laws, especially those disempowering the individual, neighborhood or community connected to a major urban center. In fact, to get past city guard dogs it would take a battery of seasoned lawyers, city planners and experienced community activists. Officials armed with stacks of regulations are guaranteed to drive all but the strongest, most battle-ready citizens back into their residential cubbyholes, licking their wounds, discouraged from trying again.
Ask Collene Swenson, an east Portland resident. She is well aware of how difficult it can be to get city response or cooperation to deal with everything from drug dealers, squatters and recalcitrant strip club owners to getting streets paved and giant potholes filled. She also knows how disinclined city officials are to do the one thing that has led her to this state of activism: listen to her neighbors, as well as to individuals in the larger community. She and her neighbors have hoped, with no results, to get action from Hazelwood Neighborhood Association rulers Arlene Kimura and Linda Robinson, who have run the NA for more than two decades, with city bureaus and the City Council itself.
Swenson quickly noticed attitudes that resembled “Thank you for sharing, but we’ve already identified our priorities.” Asked why she resists helping this group of activists in her neighborhood looking for her help with the city, Kimura said in an email that she has no comment.
An insurance agent, Swenson has heard expressions of hopelessness from her elderly neighbors and clients, single mothers whose sons have been drawn into drug activities and low-income families struggling for decent lives.
She has noticed how uninterested the downtown cadre is in these neighborhoods—“except when they are running for reelection.” Gladhanding is worth the effort to visit struggling Portland neighborhoods, but showing up to provide real assistance and problem-solving is seen as a waste of time.
After watching this frustrating neglect and disrespect of working-class neighborhoods and their families for three years, Collene Swenson decided that something must be done. She was not sure how to do it, what legal steps she would need to take or who would stand with her, but she could no longer stand back and do nothing.
She asked what her neighbors needed most and how they felt about their treatment by the city. Often, she heard “We should never have let Portland annex us. They promised to make things better, but they never did,” or “They don’t care about us. We should secede.” Looking into what secession would take, with the assistance of a few allies, Swenson drew up a petition to submit to the city from the City Auditor’s office. The document was quickly deemed illegal and rejected. Swenson requested advice about rewriting the petition and received some answers, but also an attitude that her goal was impossible to achieve and that she and her allies should back off and forget about it completely.
This was officialdom’s mistake; Collene Swenson is not one to back off when she believes those she is trying to assist are being mistreated and ignored. She listened to the criticisms, returned to her cadre of citizens, rewrote, and resubmitted the petition. Seeking out further input, the group finally decided they did not have the legal weight to follow through with the secession. Instead, they analyzed what could be done to force the city council to deal with them, and they reached into the past, when developer Bob Ball was able to gather enough signatures for a proposal to change the structure of the governing body in 2002.
Ball’s 2002 effort would have ended Portland’s commission form of government, putting executive power in the hands of the mayor. It would have created nine city council seats, seven from geographic districts and two citywide.
Ball then, like Swenson today, wanted to get Portland away from the commission form of government and into something more current.
The new petition, borrowing heavily from Ball’s original proposal, was submitted, but it, too, was criticized. Laws in place during the previous movement had been changed, and some of the language was deemed archaic.
There was concern that, despite the “flaws,” the petition could be allowed, and the committee might actually be able to collect the 31,000 plus signatures.
The Portland City Attorney’s office expressed concern that, if such a ballot measure passed, there would be a period when no legal actions could be taken by city council. Swenson listened again, and the group will probably withdraw their current proposal, rework their petition and submit one that addresses the petition’s structural problems.
Look for this proposal to be resubmitted and for its supporters to work hard to get the signatures they will need to get this issue onto the November 2016 ballot. If citizens in the greater Portland metropolitan area have learned anything, it is to stand up for what they believe is just and not to give up. Sometimes we do not agree with one another, and some proposals are more helpful to the citizenry than others are, but that does not mean we should stop trying.
In this case, east Portland citizens have a champion in Collene Swenson, who is not giving up; having moved from caring neighbor to community activist, she is determined that people in her community will get the voice they have so long, and so effectively, been denied.