Monday, January 16, 2012

Bureaucracy Breeds Dysfunction

I was asked to make a presentation last week about struggling neighborhoods at a meeting of the executive directors and board chairs of the seven neighborhood coalitions in Portland. Taking advantage of the opportunity to speak my mind I challenged the group to, "get out of your offices and into the neighborhoods." They responded defensively with a laundry list of reasons why this is impossible. The City Office of Neighborhood Involvement and the coalitions appear to be more interested in the bureaucracy than in supporting struggling neighborhoods. 

Hoping to push them toward a paradigm shift and systemic change I started my presentation with a true story of an experience with my own neighborhood:

It ‘s 6 pm on the third Thursday in January. I just slogged in the door after a long day of meetings that started at 8:30 am. My husband is preparing a lovely dinner and groans when I remind him about a Neighborhood Association (STNA) meeting at 7. “I made your favorite dinner and rented a movie.” I’m sorry honey, “I’d rather have my teeth drilled than attend the meeting, but I have to go, I’m on the board as the Southeast Uplift Coalition (SEUL) representative.”

After a rushed dinner, a quick look at dozens of emails, and a discussion about the menu we will prepare for a homeless shelter the next evening, I grab my coat and dash the 3 or 4 blocks to the church where STNA meets. When I arrive at 6:55 the room we usually use is full of teenagers who have no idea where the neighborhood association will be meeting. I make my way down a maze of corridors to a dingy classroom filled with tired overstuffed furniture where we met once before. The room is dark. I am the first to arrive.

Eventually 5 or 6 other people show up and the president convenes the meeting using strict Roberts Rules. We vote on the agenda after I bring up the fact that once again the SEUL report is not listed even though I emailed the president two weeks ago. We vote on the minutes of the November meeting after taking 5 minutes to give everyone time to read them. We vote on the treasurer’s report after she tells us we only have about $500 in our account and thus will be unable to send another newsletter. With this business out of the way a police officer no one has ever seen before hands out a crime report he ran off as he was leaving the station. He isn’t prepared to say much about crime in our neighborhood except everyone should be careful about leaving cars parked on the street. We thank him for his time.

After the police officer leaves, the treasurer tries to whip up interest in a pancake breakfast fund-raiser. Only one person offers to help. The president brings up the fact that if no one steps forward to coordinate the spring cleanup, it will have to be canceled. A young energetic neighbor says she is willing to participate in a communications committee meeting where we could talk about alternatives to the expensive newsletter. The chairman of the committee quashes her enthusiasm with the comment, “With my work schedule, I don’t have time for meetings.”

Under new business, I have a couple of items. One of STNA’s current projects is safe access across Division to bus stops and Mt. Tabor Park. As the only member of the Division Crosswalk Committee, I’m eager to share my discovery of a discussion regarding the need for pedestrian safety on Division in the minutes of a neighborhood association meeting held in 1972. Then mayor-elect Goldschmidt promised help from the City. I am hoping after almost 40 years, someone at city hall might follow through on his promise.

My next item is an exciting invitation from MTNA to join with Friends of Mt Tabor Park, Warner Pacific College and Portland Parks to plan for a summer movie in the park to be held on the grounds of the college. Wouldn’t this be a good way for STNA to get the word out about what we are doing in the neighborhood? The response is lukewarm at best. The treasurer reminds everyone about our declining bank balance.

After voting to extend the meeting for five minutes, I am given time to report on SEUL. To be honest there isn’t much to report. STNA’s neighborhood small grant request was too far down the list to be funded, nothing has happened on the strategic plan for months, and the main topic of discussion at the last board meeting was remodeling the bathrooms at the SEUL office.

The only positive bit of news is that a new SEUL staff person assigned to STNA has made contact with me and set up a coffee date to talk about our neighborhood. As far as I know no one from SEUL has ever reached out to us before. She also extended an offer to work with an architectural historian who volunteered to help our neighborhood identify common house types. I am disappointed when a board member says it is a waste of time after all "no one cares about the history of their house."

At the end of the meeting someone mentions having fun at a board potluck last month. “What potluck?” I say with surprise. It appears that even though I’ve asked repeatedly to be added to the board email I’m still not included in the messages. The person responsible for the email routing hasn’t attended a meeting since initiating an embarrassing confrontation with another board member several months ago.

At 8:35 the meeting is adjourned and we all go our separate ways. When I arrive home, my husband asks, “How was your meeting?” To which I reply, “Don’t ask.”

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