Governance at brink of change

City staff have proposed a variety of changes to the way neighborhood associations are governed

The city of West Linn wants to change the way neighborhood associations operate.

Among the proposed changes are eliminating their by-laws, requiring more members for a quorum, changing the way they are funded, restricting their use of appeals for city decisions and reducing the terms of NA officers.

A number of West Linn residents are upset over parts of the proposal, and they want to be heard.

Some are calling the city leaders' ideas 'undemocratic.' They feel disenfranchised, and they're calling the proposed changes 'punishment' for groups that are actively opposing development. They're charging the city council with trying to put barriers between citizens and decision-makers.

'Why would the city want to silence the voice of its own citizens?' said local resident Nathan Moyal in an e-mail to the council. 'I certainly hope that it is not because it is favoring out-of-town builders over its own people. Neighborhood associations provide the check-and-balance that is a must for good government.'

After city staff printed the proposal, but before the council scheduled it on an agenda, controversy erupted citywide.

The council's first meeting will be a public forum where each neighborhood association's elected leaders will be allowed to state their feelings about the proposal, according to Community Services Coordinator John Atkins.

The forum is set for 6 p.m. April 16 in council chambers on the second floor of city hall, 22500 Salamo Road.

Prior to the forum, views have been circulating through e-mails.

'We have received over 60 pages of responses,' Atkins said. 'We've modified the proposed policies from the first draft, and there may be further modifications.'

The idea of raising the number of members required for a quorum has some people disappointed. They're saying the city is punishing them for reaching major decisions with just a handful of members present.

'Some neighborhoods make a credible effort to generate attendance at their meetings,' Atkins said. 'Others don't seem to make much effort at all. I have heard complaints from citizens who didn't know meetings had occurred, weren't aware that a decision on a neighborhood plan was being made and weren't invited to participate.'

From the initial proposal of 1 percent of each neighborhood's adult population, the change would require neighborhoods such as Skyline Ridge to increase the minimum attendance to 10. At the same time, it allows neighborhoods such as Willamette to reduce their quorum to 20 members.

Atkins says he is justified in asking for larger turnouts at meetings where certain decisions are scheduled - choices related to land-use decisions, approval of neighborhood plans and to recommend changes to neighborhood boundaries.

'Often land-use issues are decided by a handful of people that may not be representative of the neighborhood as a whole,' he said. 'Nevertheless, (their actions) can cause the city to spend a significant amount of money to put on a hearing.'

The costs come from the presence of attorneys and the amount of extra time city staff would require to prepare reports and attend the hearing.

'We want to have some assurance,' Atkins said, 'that there's a reasonable level of interest and concern from residents in a neighborhood association to justify an appeal hearing.'

But for ordinary neighborhood association business, the city accepts the fact that whoever attends a meeting should be allowed to take care of business.

Atkins said changes also were proposed to restrict association bylaws being changed radically by each new set of neighborhood association leaders.

The bylaws for associations were all alike, Atkins said, when the associations were first formed nearly a decade ago. But some have had significant changes.

The proposal is to eliminate all current bylaws and replace them with a uniform set of rules.

'Neighborhood associations should be subject to the same kind of uniform rules as our boards and commissions,' Atkins said. 'This past year, the council reviewed and revised those rules so they are consistent from one board to the next.'

Some neighborhood associations took formal action against the city proposal last January.

The Tanner Basin Neighborhood Association voted 10-0 that month to oppose several of the proposal's facets.

William Relyea, president of the Parker Crest Neighborhood Association, complains that the $1,500 made available to each association is not enough 'to allow for adequate notification to the citizens on issues.'

'Mailings directly to the homes of our community members costs in some instances more than the $1,500 provided by the city for the entire year's budget,' Relyea said in an e-mail to Atkins.

The new proposal, Atkins says, would guarantee that each year the city would print and send at least two neighborhood association newsletters.

In an open letter to the council and city staff, eight past and present elected leaders of the Robinwood Neighborhood Association itemized what they liked and disliked about the proposal.

'We agree with most of the proposals you listed,' they wrote.

But they disagreed with the quorum requirement as well as an application process to receive funding and reduce police visits.

They surmised that the underlying purpose of the city's proposal was to 'silence a few critics, who are using poorly attended neighborhood associations as a personal platform to attack members of the council.'

'We will not participate in this divisive rhetoric at public meetings or in the press,' they wrote.

But others were more critical of the city such as Brian Eastman, secretary of the Marylhurst association.

'If the council adopts anything resembling the current draft proposal,' he wrote earlier this month, 'it will essentially render the neighborhood associations useless, other than for social networking.'

City manager Chris Jordan answered Eastman's remarks via e-mail by saying that the proposed ordinance 'does not alter any funding.' He also said the council will not be preparing new by-laws for the associations, and 'we are attempting to empower the officers by making the quorum requirements less restrictive and burdensome for most decisions.'

But local resident Patti Galle was more direct in her response to Eastman's views.

She suggested that Eastman had been reading too many political espionage books, and was making assumptions not based on fact.

Regarding Eastman's assertion that the council is playing political games, Galle replied that he must not know the councilors.

'If you knew them,' she said, 'you would know this: They are an extremely hard-working, caring and directed group of people who want the best for West Linn.'

And regarding Eastman's accusation that the council is working against the associations and favors developers: Galle suggested that Eastman join a committee or do some volunteer work for the city, just to get to know the council and city staff.

'Being on a neighborhood association committee and looking to find fault with everything the council does,' she wrote, 'is not proactive in my book.'

The debate will continue April 16, but Atkins says the council will mainly be listening at that meeting. They will be listening to public views and looking for guidance for their decision on how to reshape neighborhood associations.

NA Public Forum

What: Opportunity for residents and NA leaders to state their opinions on proposed changes to neighborhood association governance.

Why: A number of people have complained to city staff about the way neighborhood associations were being operated.

When: Public forum is April 16 at 6 p.m.

Where: West Linn City Hall, second floor, 22500 Salamo Road.

Who: Facilitated by a professional mediator, with the city council listening to views of NA leaders and others who attend.