By Allan Classen
Chloe Eudaly’s term on the Portland City Council may be remembered primarily for transforming—some called it dismantling—the city’s touted neighborhood association system in the name of social equity.
But her impact was broader. Eudaly took on the city’s entire citizen participation structure, asserting the authority to choose which population subgroups were entitled to a greater voice and which should take a back seat in every niche of city governance.
Her contorted civic engagement stratagems were not designed specifically to deflate the Northwest District Association, the group most responsible for launching the city’s neighborhood movement in the 1970s, but NWDA became a petri dish where the most pernicious outcomes incubated and erupted.
The association is now riven by an ideological split between alternative transportation advocacy and more traditional livability concerns. The rift is deepened by the NWDA Transportation Committee’s full faith in the Portland Bureau of Transportation’s single-minded drive to reduce the role of autos. After years of interaction with PBOT’s NW in Motion project, the NWDA board was unable to pass a motion either favoring or opposing the project, which involves diverters and other measures to impede drivers and keep them from cutting through the district.
Association officers made an eleventh-hour compromise three days before the council adopted the plan early last month. The compromise and how it was delivered to council is the subject of an internal grievance that threatens to roil the organization for months.
Everything described above fits into the category of neighborhood association activity. None of it would have necessarily unfolded differently had Eudaly not renamed the Office of Neighborhood Involvement in 2018 and directed the Office of Community & Civic Life to remove staff support for neighborhood associations while beefing up diversity advocacy.
But the picture is complicated by the fact that Eudaly oversees PBOT, giving it a green light to advance transit and alternative transportation programs, often without public input. NW in Motion was widely vetted, although it is open to charges that its conclusions were foreordained.
In addition, Eudaly has jurisdiction over another major citizen engagement program not directly linked to neighborhood associations. In 2017, the city adopted a Guide for Volunteer Boards & Commissions to set uniform standards for individuals serving on more than 100 volunteer bodies, from the Planning and Sustainability Commission to the Golf Advisory Board.
The guide was introduced by the late City Commissioner Nick Fish as an ethics reform and adopted by the council unanimously. It clarified that members of these bodies are public officials subject to disclosure of their private holdings and affiliations. Administration of the program was assigned to Civic Life, the former neighborhood program now in Eudaly’s portfolio.
Civic Life gradually compiled a list of these advisory bodies, their rosters, roles and protocols. This year, the bureau stepped beyond cataloging and unilaterally filled a vacancy on one such body, the Northwest Parking Stakeholders Advisory Committee. It was an ominous place to start. The advisory committee was created by a 2013 City Council ordinance ending what was known locally as the “parking wars,” a bitter divide between residential and commercial interests in the district refereed intermittently by the city since 1995.
The ordinance represented a peace treaty between the factions, giving each side four seats on the advisory body administering parking programs, such as parking meters introduced here in 2016. The Stakeholders Advisory Committee established an orderly, consensus-driven system that turned former rivals into partners. Disagreements flare from time to time but seldom in anger, and they reliably move toward compromise.
The pax raedam has been overseen by Rick Michaelson, the SAC chair since its inception. A developer, property manager and neighborhood activist since the 1970s, he served on the Portland Planning Commission for 16 years, half of them as chair.
SAC members also saw Michaelson as their natural leader, overriding a term-limit provision to keep him at the helm. By striving to keep car ownership a practical option for district residents while also encouraging walking and cycling, he struck a balance while keeping the SAC on track with neighborhood and city policy goals.
Eudaly may or may not have known about Michaelson’s reputation or his role in holding a delicate compromise in place. However, as commissioner over both PBOT and Civic Life, Eudaly and her hires certainly understood that they held all the cards in the Northwest District parking game.
Working in tandem, staff for the two bureaus filled an SAC vacancy without the input or knowledge of the SAC. SAC members were advised that a new approach was in the works, but they had been promised a seat on the selection process. Ron Walters was designated to fill that role, but without explanation PBOT staff told him his services were not needed after all.
The appointment process was carried out in private. When Michaelson got the news, he resigned in protest. His resignation letter was circulated before the SAC’s October meeting:
“I have been increasingly troubled by the city’s eating away at our independence and authority over the years. The final straw for me was the recent appointment of an active NWDA committee member in an at-large slot instead of appointing an otherwise unrepresented person.
“NWDA has four assigned positions on the SAC, and a fifth hurts the delicate balance we worked so hard to achieve.
“No SAC members were allowed to participate, and maintaining the ‘deal’ with NWDA and the NWBA [Northwest Business Association] was not one of the criteria.
“The flawed SAC appointment process is simply too much. The NW Parking SAC was supposed to be a great public-private partnership with the real promise of making a difference.
“Its success depended on the SAC being rooted in the neighborhood and not just a part of PBOT. If the SAC is simply going to be seen as another advisory committee that can be ignored at will by the city or used as a tool to implement already decided city policies, even if not consistent with the SAC mission to implement the Northwest Parking Plan, then it simply cannot succeed.”
PBOT’s action was alarming enough. The implementation further insulted Michaelson, who had warned that the selection process could push him out the door.
“I fully expected that staff would engage in a conversation to see if there was anything that could be done,” he said. “Instead, the SAC and public were informed of the appointment without PBOT giving me the courtesy of a heads-up about their decision. I have also been amazed that no one from PBOT has reached out to me since then.”
The entire October SAC meeting was devoted to the appointment process and Michaelson’s resignation.
Explanations by three PBOT staff members, Rae-Leigh Stark, Chris Armes and Kristan Alldrin, did not help. They explained that PBOT assembled its Social Justice Committee, Civic Life representatives and people from the city’s Office of Equity and Human Rights and agreed that the path they followed represented “best practices.”
“Who at PBOT is making these decisions?” Walters asked. “We need to know who [so we can tell them] this is a failed process.”
“I don’t think that person exists,” Armes responded. “No one person said this is how it will be. None of us here today have the ability to change the process.”
“We need to know if we’re convincing a human being or an endless loop,” SAC acting chair Nick Fenster said. “Who should we be talking to?”
“We’re hearing lots of buzzwords about best practices,” SAC member Tom Ranieri said. “You should start with inclusiveness and transparency, which there’s been none of.”
“How did it come about that we lost our voice in the process?” SAC member Mark Stromme asked. “We’re losing self-government completely and ceding that to Civic Life and PBOT, and I’m not willing to do that.”
“This is an objectionable mess,” Walters added
Later, the NW Examiner learned that the selection process was not as PBOT described it at the meeting. The decision was based on a three-person evaluation committee comprised of representatives from PBOT’s Transportation Justice Committee, the Lloyd District Transportation Management Association and the Central Eastside Industrial Council.
That revelation was a bombshell to several SAC members.
“The city owed us that information,” SAC member Don Singer said. “From what I can conclude, it was deliberately withheld.”
The person named to fill the SAC vacancy is Alexandra Zimmerman, who works for the Lloyd District Transportation Management Association as a bicycle program manager. That means a co-worker participated in picking her.
It raises another conflict of interest angle in Singer’s mind in that the Lloyd TMA “is administered by our (the NW Parking SAC’s) largest vendor [Rick Williams Consulting], which is deeply troubling and, in my opinion, disqualifies the process and the individual selected.”
“I am in agreement with Don,” Stromme said. “This conflict of interest is a disqualification, and clearly puts the process in question.”
Zimmerman is also is a member of the NWDA Transportation Committee whose outspoken views on NWIM do not reflect her own neighborhood association’s board. Since the at-large SAC position gives her independent standing to speak her mind, she could oppose NWDA positions without answering to anyone. That’s fine with her.
“I’m not seeking to represent anyone but myself,” Zimmerman told the SAC.
Where does buck stop?
Perhaps city operatives knew or cared nothing about these intricacies of local politics, and Zimmerman came out on top simply because, as PBOT staff said, she was the only qualified candidate to apply.
That would at least demonstrate that “their recruitment process is not adequate,” said Michaelson, who in six years saw the SAC fill many vacancies by combining general announcements and personal connections.
He also questions whether the undemocratic machinations even advanced their ostensible social equity goal.
“If we’re going through this process to promote diversity and the result was to install another professional white woman, then the process is inadequate.”
Michaelson is not against improving the way the committee operates.
“If the City Council decides they want to change the arrangement with the NW Parking SAC, they have the right to do that,” he said. “But they need to do that through a public process involving open meetings, citizen participation and a public hearing.”
Meanwhile, the committee functions under dictates handed down by unelected officials making secret decisions answerable to no citizen. Ultimately, the buck had to stop somewhere, and that was on Chloe Eudaly’s desk.
On Nov. 3, she lost her reelection bid to Mingus Mapps by 12 percent.