The people vs. the process
• Many neighborhood leaders say the city asks for their advice but doesn't listen Complaints prompt citywide review
The city's public involvement process has citizens running either hot or cold these days.
Warmth was expressed last Saturday morning when dozens of Portlanders gathered at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry to share ideas for rehabilitating the Willamette River.
The workshop was sponsored by several Portland agencies to solicit citizen comment on River Renaissance, an ambitious city plan for restoring the river after more than a century of abuse and neglect.
'I really appreciate the fact that the city is involving the public in the plan. It looks like they really want our input, and I value that,' said David Whitaker, a Beaumont-Wilshire neighborhood resident who bikes to work downtown via the Eastbank Esplanade.
Earlier in the week, a different public meeting ended on a less positive note.
On Wednesday afternoon, the Portland City Council rejected an effort by the Forest Park Neighborhood Association to block a 21-lot subdivision on a heavily wooded hillside along Northwest Skyline Boulevard. Although six residents testified that the upscale development would destroy their neighborhood, the council ruled that it complied with the existing zoning codes and approved it.
'They didn't listen to any of our concerns. This should have been about people, not legalities,' opponent Colin Macdonald fumed after the vote.
The events reveal the deeply split view about the success of the city's public involvement process. Although the city says it constantly asks residents for their advice, many Portlanders believe their input is being ignored when the final decisions are made.
'A lot of people are very discouraged,' said Paul Leistner, a former research director for the City Club who serves as president of the Mount Tabor Neighborhood Association.
City lacks consistent policy
Last October, after hearing a rising number of citizen complaints, city Commissioner Jim Francesconi launched a formal review of the city's public involvement practices. At his direction, the Office of Neighborhood Involvement appointed a 37-member Citywide Public Involvement Standards Task Force to guide the project.
'My belief is that sometimes what we are doing is not public involvement but public informing,' Francesconi said.
'We are telling the public what we are doing instead of involving them in the decision. I want to make sure we are involving them, especially on major capital construction projects.'
Although the involvement task force has met only twice since the first of the year, it already has confirmed that Portlanders are split over the success of the process. Participants named 26 projects for which they thought it worked well Ñ and 25 in which they thought it did not.
According to Brian Hoop, the involvement office staffer working on the review, one reason for the split is the lack of a consistent involvement policy.
'There are no standards for citizen involvement for all bureaus. Each bureau does outreach as they see fit. They all use different strategies and methods,' he said.
Task force member Frank Dixon is more blunt.
'Right now we have civic anarchy,' he said.
Some Portlanders see a more devious reason for the split, however. A number of neighborhood activists said they believe city officials frequently make up their minds about projects before they ask Portlanders what they think.
'I've testified at many City Council hearings, and I've seen the same thing happen over and over again,' said David Redlich, chairman of the Homestead Neighborhood Association in Southwest Portland.
'First the bureaucrats and special interests testify, and the City Council is very attentive,' he said. 'Then it's time for the citizens to testify, and the commissioners start talking to each other or walking out of the room.'
Redlich and other activists point to two examples:
• The council's ongoing support for the proposed aerial tram between Oregon Health & Science University's facilities on Marquam Hill and its proposed satellite campus in the North Macadam urban renewal area, despite widespread neighborhood opposition.
'Citizens always seem to lose when they go up against a powerful institution like OHSU,' said Redlich, whose association opposes the tram.
• The City Council's May vote to bury the five open water reservoirs in Mount Tabor and Washington parks without a public hearing.
'It was a joke. There was no citizen involvement at all,' said Jeff Boly, a retired lawyer who is spearheading a legal effort to overturn the decision.
Portland Mayor Vera Katz does not believe the council is ignoring the city's residents.
'We're elected to make tough decisions. Sometimes people don't like the results. Instead of simply accepting that they lost, sometimes they say we didn't listen to them,' she said.
Some public input has impact
City officials frequently boast how much they listen to local residents. More than 100 neighborhood associations have been recognized to speak on behalf of their residents. Many city agencies have formed citizen advisory committees for projects ranging from new parks to street improvements. Some agencies also hold workshops and open houses to involve even more citizens in their decisions.
There are a number of success stories. Leistner praised Portland Parks & Recreation for listening to citizens' concerns when it developed the Mount Tabor Park Master Plan three years ago.
'People had a lot of competing wishes for the park, and the staff really listened to everyone and worked out compromises, and everyone was pleased in the end,' Leistner said.
Likewise, Linnton neighborhood residents praise the city for installing a stoplight after a fatal accident in November 2001.
'Mayor Katz's office has been so wonderful, so responsive in getting help for us,' said Pat Wagner, president of the Linnton Neighborhood Association.
But it's easy to find examples where citizens think their concerns have been ignored, either by agency administrators or by the council itself:
• The Portland Development Commission voted to build a low-income housing project in the Lents neighborhood in Southeast Portland despite a 16-to-3 vote against it by the official urban renewal citizen advisory committee.
'I don't need this aggravation,' said Randy Dagel, who has served on the advisory committee for four years and owns Lents Auto Body.
• The Bureau of Development Services has cleared the way for the construction of a four-story building in Multnomah Village, despite complaints that it will destroy the area's quaint charm.
'Why do they make us feel they have a say in the matter if they just ignore the public and do what they want to do? I'm French, but if I was an American I would feel Ñ how do you say it? Ñ miffed,' said Yves Le Meitour, owner of the village's Le Meitour Gallery.
• Hundreds of new houses, townhouses and apartment buildings are being squeezed between existing homes in east Portland without any additional parks for the new residents or street improvements for the additional traffic.
'We've told them they are destroying our livability, but they don't seem to care,' said Bonnie McKnight of the Wilkes Community Association, which opposed the project.
• Brooklyn neighborhood residents accuse the city of ignoring their repeated pleas to reduce traffic speeds on the portion of Southeast McLoughlin Boulevard that cuts past their homes.
'We've tried to get them to listen to us for years, but they've just worn us down by ignoring everything we've had to say,' said Gary Dye, co-chairman of the neighborhood's land use committee.
Mayor looks at big picture
As Katz sees it, however, the council must consider what is best for the entire city, not just a single part of town. She points to the OHSU tram as a case in point. Although some local residents fear it will reduce their property values, Katz argues the tram is vital to the city's long-range development plans.
The council has hoped to revitalize the west bank of the Willamette River south of the Ross Island Bridge for many years. The former industrial site has long been touted as the city's next great urban neighborhood. But even though the council adopted an urban renewal plan for the 135-acre parcel in 1999, work stalled on the project until OHSU announced its intention to build a satellite campus there focusing on biotech research.
Hospital officials promised to pump millions of dollars into the area, potentially creating thousands of good-paying jobs and helping the city achieve its vision of a dense new urban neighborhood. The proposal had one catch, however: The officials insisted that an aerial tram be built to connect the campus to the existing Marquam Hill facilities.
Some neighbors living under and near the proposed tram route came out against it early. They argued that it would violate the Victorian feel of their neighborhoods and reduce property values. Neighbor Larry Beck, a Portland lawyer, also argued that the city does not have clear policies for issuing land use and construction permits for such a project.
'We know what the neighbors are saying,' Katz said.
Redlich agrees with Katz Ñ up to a point.
'It's easy to say the city wasn't listening when you lose. The trouble is, citizens are losing all the time,' Redlich said.
Leistner believes the public involvement task force's work is critical to Portland's future. He believes that many people have grown cynical about city government in recent years.
'If we can get back on track, we can solve a lot of problems. If we can't, things are just going to get worse and worse,' Leistner said.
It is unclear whether the involvement task force will be able to bridge the gap between the commitment to citizen involvement and the complaints that no one is listening. After only two public hearings, it already has identified 33 recommendations for reform, ranging from providing more time for public testimony to requiring the council to meet in the evenings so more people can attend.
'We need to narrow them down to five, 10 or 15 recommendations that can actually be achieved,' Hoop said.
Boly does not understand why the problem is so hard to solve, however.
'All you have to do is involve citizens before you make decisions. It's not brain surgery,' Boly said.
The next meeting of the Citywide Public Involvement Task force is 5 p.m. April 23 in the Lovejoy Room, second floor, City Hall, 1221 S.W. Fourth Ave.