In an effort to strip away the mystery of the City of Portland's budget process, the Office of Management and Finance has created a new 'citizens' forum' format.
Instead of having a parade of City officials talk amongst themselves - with little citizen input - a new 'round-robin' format was instituted at the February 22nd meeting held at Cleveland High School, on S.E. Powell Boulevard.
Hundreds of people from the far corners of Inner Southeast Portland packed the school's cafeteria.
'I'm a graduate of this fine institution,' Mayor Tom Potter said, of Cleveland High, at the event. 'This forum is a way for citizens to provide us input about what they think is important. It gives them a chance to look at what we are recommending. If there are things we need to add, they let us know.'
Looking out over a sea of tables, charts, and people, the Mayor told us how this event differs from ones held in the past. 'We have a table for each of the major bureaus of the city. There are some additional hosting tables, also -- including public safety and Children's Bill of Rights.'
Citizens spent about ten minutes at each table, looking over the proposed budget applying to that particular department, and gave their input and listened to the opinions of others. Then, a bell rang, and people changed tables.
Finally, wrapping up the evening, top city officials talked with the attendees.
'I've sat in, at several of the tables,' commented Potter. 'People are asking really good questions. It saves citizens time; we get more input of a higher quality. I think the result is much more effective.'
Portland City Commissioner Dan Saltzman said, 'I like it. I was able to wander around and hear many thoughtful comments at the tables. We'll take the ideas. I appreciate the enthusiasm for sustainable development and parks, the Children's Bill of Rights, and other initiatives the City Council supports.'
'This has been really been fun', enthused Portland City Commissioner Erik Sten. 'I've had more in-depth conversations that I usually get. We were just talking about affordable housing. I do think it is important that we get good feedback from all of the tables. Having more in-depth discussions is more helpful than two-minute 'hits' from a few people. I heard a lot about how the City can better integrating projects and programs. The citizens have set the bar very high.'
Many people at the event with whom we spoke were upbeat about the new format.
Nancy Chapin, a businessperson from the Brentwood-Darlington neighborhood, said she liked hearing that more storefront-improvement funds will go to businesses outside the Urban Renewal Districts. 'As important as housing is, I'm still concerned there is still way too much housing in Southeast Portland, with not nearly enough community development. The city is still spending too much money downtown.'
'Did you feel you'd been heard?' we asked.
'Well, they wrote it down,' Chapin replied.
Neighborhood activist Paul Leistner of the Mt. Tabor Neighborhood Association and Chair of Southeast Uplift, commented, 'There are some good projects here, but we have more good projects than we have money to fund. I hope the community will stay engaged, and continue to have a voice in this process.'
We asked Leistner if he thought city officials were really listening. 'I saw comments being written down. I know it doesn't stop here. We have to continue to be heard to make sure the programs we feel are important get funded.'
Marianne Colgrove, Vice Chair of Southeast Uplift, and Secretary of the Ardenwald-Johnson Creek Neighborhood Association, told us she liked being able to ask questions of city officials. 'It was important to hear other people's concerns. But I felt that the time at the tables wasn't long enough.'
Colgrove said the major issues in her neighborhood are transportation, and transportation safety. 'Including a lot of the things people here mentioned -- pedestrian and bike safety, 'Safe Routes to School', and traffic calming within the city to make it safer when not in a car.'