To mark the Mid-county Memo’s 30th anniversary, we’re sampling the paper’s first year of publishing. This month, we look at the June 1985 edition. It featured a story on citizen efforts to create a city from unincorporated Multnomah County.
Community activism is often based on the little person fighting for his or her rights against the bureaucracy. Whether it’s small town versus big city or unincorporated county versus municipality, the people are most resistant to being controlled when they don’t feel consulted before decisions are made that will impact their lifestyles or their lives and family environment. Such has long been the case with residents of the mid-Multnomah county area. Conflict between mid-Multnomah County and the cities of Portland and Gresham have stirred various citizens of this area to stand up on their feet and fight the larger municipal governmental bodies that seem determined to take control away from them. Worse, these bureaucrats seem determined to ignore the stated needs of a significant number of residents in the Mid-county area.
Recent efforts of citizens like Collene Swenson and Pat Edwards are just the latest in the attempts of determined community activists to hold larger governmental bodies accountable—or to threaten to vote with their feet. Patience can only last so long before citizens say, “Fine, I’m taking my ball and going home.”
In 1985, a notice in the brand new Mid-county Memo invited citizens to attend “a series of public meetings” to develop “a charter for the proposed city of Columbia Ridge.” There was unhappiness around efforts from Portland and Gresham to swallow up the in-between neighborhoods, largely for the purpose of expanding urban tax bases. Portland won, and the mid-County area had been paying for it, without much advantage, ever since.
The meetings continued, listening to dissatisfied citizens, and developing a charter, which would, they hoped, bring them removal from Portland’s grasp and incorporation that would bring unity for affected Mid-county residents.
Citizens did attend these meetings, and testimony was heard about the difficulties faced by annexed residents. One individual noticed “My property taxes [following annexation] went up 19.2 percent.”
This group, Mid-county Future Alternatives Committee (MCFAC) was lead by two representatives from Fairview, Mayor Marv Woidyla and Jan Shearer, and unincorporated county residents Tom Dennehy and Bonny McKnight. All four were determined to push forward and create a new municipality that would take their tax dollars and their decision-making processes out of the hands of the behemoth to their west. Lawsuits were filed challenging the legality of the 1980s annexation actions, and citizens questioned what services would be provided. The “stumbling blocks” included “not knowing the exact sewage rates, property tax status, police and fire protection and emergency services for themselves.”
Mayor Woidyla found all the focus on sewage a bit much. Seeing the overall picture of creating a municipality that truly served all the interests of the area’s residents, he stated “A product of the mind should determine which city, instead of a product of the bowels.” The charter developed by the MCFAC group would have employed “a four-district breakdown with a City Manager form of government. City affairs would be handled by a six-member council—one member voting from each district and two at-large members,” (5) plus a City Mayor.
Columbia Ridge was ultimately denied because of the three-mile veto. This stated that a municipality couldn’t be formed if cities within three miles of the proposed city objected—which, of course, they did.
East Portland 2015
In February 2015, a new cadre of east county residents submitted a petition calling for the de-annexation of neighborhoods in mid-Multnomah County. The petition was filed with City Elections Officer, Deborah Scoggins in the Portland City Auditor’s office. It was rough and honest, but not smooth enough to pass the eagle eyes of agency officials. Deemed illegal and poorly written, it brought up many of the problems Mid-county residents faced: inadequate police and fire services, neglect of senior needs, poorly paved roads, no sidewalks, and many more problems. Because the document didn’t meet structural standards, it was figuratively ripped to shreds with the suggestion that it’s sponsors should give up on their quest. However, these community activists weren’t about to slink home with their tails between their legs. Team members Collene Swenson, Elzy P. Edwards and Brian Garry took another look at their petition, acknowledged its weaknesses, and tried a different tack. They decided to pursue changing the Portland’s governing structure. Instead of the Mayor-Council form long used, they decided to file a petition to create a council that elects its members from different districts in the city.
As the system exists now, all council members can actually be elected from one part of Portland, and their ability to represent neighborhoods they rarely visit—except during and election year—is frequently inadequate. Swenson and her colleagues found a previous petition that had come to a vote, had failed, but not by a great margin. Securing a copy of this petition, they developed one that followed the new strategy, and submitted it. City officials again negated their work, but acknowledged it could be accepted. The group is determined to win, but they realize they need an approach that will pass inspection, and even receive enough votes to pass, and they also want their efforts to work for the greatest good.
Acknowledging the weaknesses in the second petition, they have withdrawn it, but the fight is not over. Swenson, Edwards and Garry have drawn more Mid-county residents to their cause. They are not ready to give up, they are ready to effectively win this battle. If anything, east county has proven over the years that they are a determined bunch, and that they are not willing to see neighborhoods in their area further deteriorate. Quitting is not their game. Not then, and not now.
The Memo’s first two editions—May and June 1985—are available on the paper’s website at midcountymemo.com. Click on the “Newspaper Morgue” link.