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PDC cuts squeeze community input

Gateway residents say end of citizen panels hurts best interests


by: TRIBUNE: JAIME VALDEZ - Mayor Charlie Hales listens to senior planner Troy Doss on a recent bike tour of the inner east side. Hales says dumping citizen advisory committees for urban renewal areas may not be a good idea, but was necessary due to PDC budget cuts.  Bob Earnest and fellow East Portland activists have served as a local voice for Gateway residents — and street-level eyes and ears for city officials — since the Portland Development Commission created an urban renewal district there in 2001.

But now the PDC is eliminating its urban renewal advisory committee for Gateway, and similar panels in the Lents and Interstate urban renewal areas. Those are billed as the PDC’s neighborhood-focused urban renewal areas, where the agency seeks a more grassroots approach to community development, in contrast to its traditional downtown-style redevelopment.

“It just doesn’t feel right,” says Earnest, co-chairman of the Gateway advisory committee. “I hope to goodness that somebody still has our best interests at heart.”

The PDC, still undergoing wrenching layoffs and budget cuts, no longer has the staff to fan out into the community and attend so many meetings, says Patrick Quinton, the city agency’s executive director. Quinton also concluded the urban renewal advisory committees are an “outdated model,” relying on the same faces and neighborhood association leaders who are willing to attend lots of meetings. The agency hopes to recruit more people with business and lending experience, he says.

“It’s time to rethink how we gather public input on our work and choose a better model.”

The PDC will start by expanding its centralized Neighborhood Economic Development Leadership Group to include at least two people associated with each of the Gateway, Lents and Interstate urban renewal areas.

Mayor Charlie Hales, who has vowed to devote more attention to the city’s oft-neglected neighborhoods, isn’t enthused about dumping the PDC’s urban renewal advisory committees in low-income communities like Gateway, Lents and Interstate.

“It probably wasn’t a good idea,” Hales concedes, “but it was a necessary one given the budget situation.”

The PDC will need to experiment with new ways to involve neighbors who live in its urban renewal areas, Hales says. “We’ll see how that works.”

Linda Robinson, longtime member of the Gateway advisory committee and several other community-building efforts, says the PDC never really mastered the art of involving the public. “And it’s going to get worse if it’s all downtown,” she says.

The Neighborhood Economic Development Leadership Group is dominated by “downtown folks,” Robinson says, and she’s unsure if many Gateway-area residents will want to drive downtown to attend meetings.

Committee limitations

At its peak a few years ago, the PDC had four people working full-time on public involvement, plus one to two doing support work. ‘We are down to one full-time staff person,” Quinton says.

Whenever the urban renewal area advisory committees met, the PDC often sent three to four staff members who had various specialties. That wasn’t sustainable given the PDC’s staff reductions, Quinton says.

The PDC is on a trajectory to pare its staff to 95 employees by July, less than half its staffing level four years ago. The reductions are due to a variety of factors, including past overspending that finds the agency deploying most of its revenues to paying off debt.

The PDC also will eliminate its four remaining advisory committees for other urban renewal areas, Quinton says. Then it will create a second group to advise the agency for all of its central-city urban renewal districts, parallel to the Neighborhood Economic Development Leadership Group.

Some slots on the PDC’s now-defunct neighborhood-oriented urban renewal advisory committees were appointed by neighborhood associations and other groups that were allotted representatives. In contrast, the new committees will enable the PDC to pick citizens to advise the agency.

In hindsight, the decision to dump the citizen advisory committees shouldn’t come as a surprise. In the past couple of years, the PDC limited the advisory committee meetings to every three months. Before that, the Gateway committee met formally every two months, plus sessions in-between meetings to help frame agendas, Robinson says. The PDC also started preventing the committees from filling vacancies.

In the past few years, citizens on the committees seemed to lose their ability to set their own agendas, Robinson and Earnest say.

The PDC, for example, presented proposals for spending Gateway’s urban renewal money on the light-rail system and a children’s receiving center, Earnest says. “It was already a done deal before it was presented,” Earnest says. “We lost a lot of members because they were thoroughly disgusted and discouraged,” he says.

In the past, Quinton says, citizens in the Lents, Gateway and Interstate areas took their concerns about all city matters to the urban renewal advisory committees, even if the concerns related to other city bureaus. “They became the place where people went for all those issues as well,” he says. “It became an imperfect conversation.”

Quinton says the PDC will work with the city Office of Neighborhood Involvement to help devise new ways for citizens to stay involved with urban renewal areas. And the city will retain its stakeholder committees when it has a special project going on that affects urban renewal areas, such as one now focusing on improvements to Foster Road in the Lents area. That project is using money from the PDC and other sources. “They’re a standard practice of ours, and they will continue to be,” Quinton says.

Robinson says some activists are exploring ways to retain the Gateway group apart from the PDC, perhaps as a subcommittee of the city-supported East Portland Action Plan. Many citizens turn to committee members to know what’s going on in the urban renewal effort, she says, and neighbors want to continue to monitor what’s going on.

“We don’t just want to have things done to us,” she says. “Why do we need PDC to have a committee?”