PORTLAND — Neighborhood association leaders are grappling with reshaping their relationship with the city, collectively questioning not just how they want to structure their interaction with City Hall, but what issues they want to work on, too.
Consensus, however, has been elusive for the city’s many neighborhood groups, and solidifying the evolving relationship between them and City Manager Mark Rees, now seven months into the job, has been slowed by a pair of missed meeting opportunities since the new year began.
Everybody wants to serve the city and the neighborhoods for the best, said Anne Pringle, Western Promenade Neighborhood Association president. “But we haven’t landed on that yet.”
The debate centers around the format of the regular meetings between the city manager and the heads of the neighborhood associations.
Rees’ predecessor, Joseph Gray, held monthly meetings that he led as policy debriefings. Neighborhood association presidents were invited to attend, but Gray determined most of the content and treated them as voluntary acts on his part with limited room for two-way engagement, University Neighborhood Organization President Carol Schiller said.
In the months in between Gray’s retirement and Rees’ arrival in July 2011, neighborhood association leaders began to discuss a more dialog-oriented relationship with the interim city manager, Pat Finnigan, Schiller said.
The time seemed right for local neighborhood association leaders to revisit their collective relationship with the city as the city’s upper level staff, including the city manager, mayor, some city councilors, and police chief turned over during the last year.
When Rees canceled meetings with association presidents in January and February because of scheduling conflicts, Schiller arranged for the leaders to meet independently to further their conversation about their goals for the monthly meetings.
The result was a letter that Schiller sent to Rees, outlining a list of suggested procedural changes, including allowing one or two residents to join each neighborhood association’s president at the regular meetings, predetermining the agenda and cataloging the minutes of each meeting, she said.
“They’re very small things,” Schiller said. But, “it gives (the neighborhood associations) a voice, and the city pays attention to real people with real voices.”
The city manager supported the neighborhood leaders’ requests, Schiller said.
In a phone conversation Monday, though, Rees said he hasn’t decided whether to adopt any of them, and that he wanted to hear from as many of the associations as possible – the city’s website lists 20 of them – rather than the subset whose views were included in the letter.
The suggestions would be discussed at the next meeting, scheduled for March 13, he said.
And indeed, not all of the neighborhood associations’ leaders are on board with the proposed changes.
Longtime Stroudwater Village Association President Elizabeth Hoglund said the meetings were “very good, very informative” the way Gray ran them, and that Schiller’s proposals are too far-reaching, almost a new level of government.
“I don’t want that level of a relationship” with city administrators, Hoglund said. “What our neighborhood wanted and got was what Joe Gray was doing.”
Since Gray stepped down, some of the meetings have turned into “gripe sessions,” Hoglund said: With each neighborhood association voicing concerns at the meetings, getting caught up in neighborhood-specific issues that didn’t involve the others became a problem.
People could bring those issues to their city councilors, she said.
A more appropriate use of an umbrella organization for neighborhood associations would be to share information about structuring bylaws or tracking membership, Hoglund said.
“I personally would rather have it be meetings about bigger policy issues” that all the neighborhoods can interact with the city on, Pringle said. “I hope it will be more of a dialog. But I think the dialog has to be more on higher level issues,” she said.
Rees said open, frank discussion about issues would be beneficial to him. But he said he is concerned about ensuring the exchanges deal with issues efficiently, and that he doesn’t want to waste anyone’s time.
As the associations and the city manager hammer out their new operating procedure, “everyone’s still struggling with … making it a meaningful experience,” Pringle said.