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Panel examines citywide neighborhood structures


While it may not ultimately affect the future structure of the East Portland Neighborhood Office, a few neighborhood leaders agreed they learned a lot from a session last month on how other parts of Portland conduct neighborhood affairs.

The session, put together by Woodland Park Neighborhood Association Chair Alesia Reese, included discussions and presentations by the executive directors of four other neighborhood offices: Anne Dufay of the Southeast Uplift Neighborhood Program, Tom Griffin-Valade of the North Portland Neighborhood Office, Mark Sieber of Neighbors West/Northwest and Alison Stoll of Central Northeast Neighbors. Also present were Paul Leistner, former Southeast Uplift board chair who now works for the Portland Office of Neighborhood Involvement. In addition to Reese, Mid-County neighborhood chairs Valerie Curry of Argay, David Lister of Glenfair, Rosemarie Opp of Mill Park, Carol Williams of Parkrose Heights and Bonny McKnight of Russell attended, as well as Lents representative Ray Hites. Also at the meeting - but not participating - was EPNO Executive Director Richard Bixby, whose job would be in jeopardy if the east Portland chairs decide to switch operating models.

EPNO and North Portland are under the direct control of ONI. Portland's other five neighborhood offices are run by nonprofit corporations controlled by boards composed mainly of representatives of the neighborhoods the office serves. The East Portland chairs, at the instigation of McKnight, have been considering whether to retain its existing structure or switch to a nonprofit model. Many of the chairs have said they didn't have enough information to make the decision. Reese volunteered to set up a forum to fill in the information gaps.

One thing that quickly became evident is that there is a great deal of difference in how each office functions, even among the nonprofits. For instance, at the Southwest Neighborhood Office (which did not participate in the forum due to a board meeting conflict), the phone is almost always answered during business hours and all three staff people share this task. In contrast, in the North Portland Neighborhood Office, it is almost never answered. “My philosophy is that if we're in our office sitting at our desks, we're not doing our jobs; we should be out in the community,” Griffin-Valade said. The Southeast Uplift office is open from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., and CNN 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Thursday. “If my board said, 'We want the office open Monday through Friday,' it would be up to me to figure out how to do that,” Stoll said. She is paid for 32 hours of work a week, but typically works about 60.

At Neighbors West/Northwest, “We went from everyone answering the phone to everyone having their own phone lines,” Sieber said. “Calls are answered within 24 hours, usually less, but it's not a typical business office. Our board said, 'We want more feet on the street.' Keeping someone in the office would take up a lot of paid staff time.”

Money has been a key issue in the EPNO debate. Because they are city staff, the EPNO and North Portland directors are paid more and have considerably more benefits than the nonprofits. However, Leistner said, “If you pay people less, there is likely to be higher turnover.”

North Portland has the most complex structure: It has both an informal networking group similar to EPNO's coalition chairs, and a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that can seek out grants; more than half the total budget and several of the five-person part-time staff come from grants and special project allocations. The nonprofits have the ability to do fundraising but vary in how much they actually do. Southwest regularly secures $40,000 a year through appeals. CNN did an electronics-recycling event that raised $5,000, which they used to buy a new copier. Aside from this, Stoll said, “My board said, 'Balance the budget with what you get from ONI; we don't want to fundraise.'”

A bigger issue is the allocation of city funds. “We each get different amounts based on what was once a formula that no one remembers,” Sieber said.

Asked by Reese if East Portland is supporting the rest of the city, Griffin-Valade said, “To some extent, yes,” meaning if the calculations were based strictly on the number of households in a coalition's service area. However, he added, some feel that other criteria, such as poverty and geographic area should be part of the calculation. Sieber noted that if population were the only criteria for allocating money and the current budget was used, some offices would only be able to afford one staff person. Stoll said that under these conditions CNN would be crippled.“Anything would be better than what we have now,” Reese said, referring to ONI's system for allocating funds.

(According to this reporter - who worked for ONI from 1980-85 - the city never had a formula for allocating money to neighborhood offices. The offices were created piecemeal as need and opportunity arose, not subject to any preconceived plan. As additional funds became available, they were allocated by the central office based on what the greatest unmet need in the district offices appeared to be.)

Another issue is the role of the boards in nonprofit coalitions. McKnight has argued that they have important power to shape the direction of the coalitions, but other leaders are concerned about the time and responsibility involved. Some of the coalition staffs have been quite stable; counting time served as a crime prevention specialist, Stoll has worked at CNN for 18 years, Sieber has directed West/Northwest for nine, and Sylvia Bogert has been director of Southwest Neighborhoods, Inc. for 19 years, after first serving as office manager. However, there has been much more turnover at Southeast Uplift and the Northeast Coalition of Neighborhoods, and it has compelled those boards to deal with personnel issues. White speculated that getting a large board to make decisions could be cumbersome; Dufay said she hadn't found this to be so. However, Sieber told the EPNO chairs, “Our board is responsible for the operation of the office and staff; they have to behave as a business board, as you do not.”

The coalitions and offices differ in other ways. CNN and Southeast Uplift eschew a coalition-wide newsletter in favor of individual newsletters for their member neighborhoods, SWNI (Southwest Neighborhood Office) publishes a single, inclusive newsletter and EPNO is moving in that direction. West/Northwest utilizes a centerfold insert in the independent newspaper Northwest Examiner. Because its member neighborhoods are so different - with the highly urbanized Downtown, Pearl and Northwest District, the semi-rural Forest Park and Linnton, and Northwest Industrial - the West/Northwest Review Board only takes policy positions if they are unanimous, and nearly all activity is at the neighborhood level. McKnight wondered if this diffusion of power meant a loss of clout with the city. Stoll felt it added strength because more volunteers and groups could sign on to a common cause.

A universal problem is finding people to serve as board members and officers. “There's the impression that there are hundreds of volunteers out there waiting for something to do,” Griffin-Valade said. “We can recruit very well for special projects, but for ongoing work you find the same people showing up.”

Sieber found that the more residential a neighborhood was, the smaller and less active its association was. Stoll said, “In any one year, we have a neighborhood that is struggling.”

Though there was no immediate indication what will come next, the EPNO leaders agreed the session was highly informative.
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