By Nels Johnson of Portland, Oregon. Nels works at the government relations firm State Street Solutions. He also moonlights in city politics from time to time.
Equity has become a center issue in the 2012 Mayoral race. From the beginning of the Primary Election until now, candidates have consistently tried to one-up the others in their commitment to equity. From promising to fully embrace the Office of Equity, to who can have the most diverse administration, to who can make the biggest promises to East Portland. All of these things are great, and much needed, but none of them will ever really achieve true equity. What’s needed is a change from an at-large election system to one with more direct representation. Changing the way our districts are apportioned is a major and fundamental shift, lets look at why its necessary and the only way we’re ever going to achieve true equity in the city of Portland.
I personally care deeply about issue of equity and believe its one of the most important issues of our time. But my care is limited by lack of first hand knowledge of issues facing disparate communities in Portland. The fact is - I don’t know Portland east of 82nd Ave very well. Sure, I can tell you all about the Gateway community, or talk about the great things going on at David Douglas High School, or tell you how to get to various places east of 82nd Ave, but I don’t really know East Portland because I don’t live out there. I don’t know what its like first hand, to have my children walk to school along the ditch because there aren’t enough sidewalks. I don’t know what its like to have my neighborhood be a hub for drug and gang violence like the folks living in Rockwood. I don’t know what its like to have limited access to public transportation as a result of TriMet repeatedly cutting routes on the east side. My lack of direct, first-hand knowledge distorts my view of how city government decisions actually and directly affect those who live east of 82nd Ave.
The fundamental problem is that we suffer from a lack of direct representation. In Portland, we have a very unique form of government made up of four at-large elected commissioners plus a Mayor. That means it’s possible for all five elected officials to come from the same part of town rather than from a diverse range of communities. This is exactly what’s happened in Portland. As a city we’ve only had a single commissioner, Randy Leonard, live east of 82nd and we’ve never had a Mayor do so. Make no mistake, this isn’t about electing Charlie Hales or Jefferson Smith to Mayor, both are fine individuals and both will be committed to equity. But the problem is structural, not personal.
I have no doubt that all four City Commissioners and the Mayor, as well as all remaining candidates deeply care about equity, and are working very hard to achieve it. But few if any of them have first hand knowledge of the issues facing folks in East Portland. This becomes critically important as the City puts together its budget. Projected revenue for the City for the next five years looks to stay flat at best but more cuts will be likely. This means the City will have to prioritize its obligations. Where do we cut services? If we have to reduce park services, does it make more sense to reduce services at the East Portland Community Center or the Southwest Community Center?
The current debate over how to create more affordable housing illustrates perfectly the need for greater direct representation. This past June, the Oregonian reported that 93% of all new enrollees in the City’s affordable housing program are living east of 82nd Ave. What this means is that the City’s affordable housing policy is having a disproportionate effect upon disparate communities who should have direct representation on the Council to directly advocate their positions.
Additionally, a more direct democracy is not exactly a novel concept. Virtually every city in America larger than Portland divides itself into wards or districts and allows citizens to directly elect their representation rather than an at large system. Here in the Portland-Metro area we have citizens directly elect their representatives to both Metro and the counties. We can do the same here in the city of Portland
Some wonder why more residents living east of 82nd Ave don’t run for citywide office. The fact is, the barriers in running for office are greater; its tougher to raise money when you live east of 82nd and don’t have the same name ID as politicians or community leaders from the other parts of the city.
In the seminal work on environmental justice entitled From the Ground Up, Luke Cole and Sheila Foster talk about the importance of disparate communities “speaking for themselves” and that for “communities to be heard.” This calls for greater participation from disparate groups, but it also calls us in Portland to fundamentally change the way we elect our representation. Only by changing our structure from an at-large one where the commissioners are all elected city wide to a more direct model of representation by wards or districts, we can ensure that the communities directly affected by decisions will have a seat at the bargaining table and thus ensure that tough decisions are made in a more fair, just and equitable way.