Citizen involvement matters

By Ken Ray of Portland, Oregon, a member and former chair of the Multnomah County Citizen's Involvement Committe. [Editor's note: This column is the testimony Ken gave yesterday at a county hearing. The matter at issue is a proposed cut to the permanent citizen involvement staff. The final vote is Thursday.]

Chair Linn and Commissioners, for the record my name is Ken Ray and I am a member of the Citizen Involvement Committee from District 1. I am also a former chair of the CIC.

I am here tonight to share my concerns about the proposed budget for the Office of Citizen Involvement as it currently stands and urge your immediate rejection of the cut in staffing that is being proposed.

I will try to keep my remarks brief and I will not mince words. This budget, with the proposed cut of one FTE position, is woefully inadequate, it violates the County Charter and ordinances, and it is a slap in the face to hundreds of citizens who devote thousands of hours of their time and talents in making County government function.

Under Chair Linn’s proposed budget, the Office of Citizen Involvement was to be funded at $179,641, which would adequately provide for two full-time staff positions and fund the operations and services of the Office.

While $179,000 is, frankly, a very limited amount of money to devote to citizen involvement in a county of over 600,000 people, we have been able to achieve a great deal with our limited funding thus far. We have partnered with local civic organizations such as the City Club of Portland and the League of Women Voters to conduct public forums and discussions on the budget priority-setting process. These forums engaged more than 400 citizens in the budget process and enabled them to offer their views and insights into which types of programs and services the county should prioritize.

We have overseen and staffed the Citizen Budget Advisory Committees. We have published newsletters and other materials promoting opportunities for citizen participation in County government. We have met with citizen groups and neighborhood associations to share information and promote greater involvement in County government, and we have sponsored and promoted the annual Volunteer Awards Ceremony each April, which recognizes dozens of devoted volunteers each year who contribute their time, talents and dedication to Multnomah County and the citizens who rely on its services.

In addition, the members of the Citizen Involvement Committee and the staff in the Office of Citizen Involvement have worked closely with staff in various County departments to assess the needs for citizen participation in their programs and help connect departments with citizens who are willing and eager to help.

We are able to achieve a great deal with limited funding, but we could not do any of it without adequate staffing. With only one full-time employee, there is no possible way to staff the office located in this building, deal with routine and necessary administrative tasks, manage the Citizen Budget Advisory Committee process, facilitate the Volunteer Awards Ceremony, staff the Citizen Involvement Committee, meet regularly with elected officials and departmental staff to engage citizens in various policy- and decision-making processes, and go out to neighborhood and business associations, community groups, and other interested citizens to promote greater involvement in Multnomah County government.

Simply put, this budget, with only one full-time position, weakens the effectiveness of the Office of Citizen Involvement, and of the Citizen Involvement Committee, in advocating for greater citizen input into County government.

Given its obvious inadequacy, this proposed amended budget also violates the County’s charter and the CIC’s enabling ordinance. That ordinance specifies that the staffing of the office, “shall, at a minimum, consist of a Director and Secretary.” Section 3.75 of the Charter states that, “The board of county commissioners shall appropriate sufficient funds for the operation of the office and the committee.” For reasons I have already outlined, this budget does not qualify as “sufficient.”

Additionally, the Charter explicitly gives the Citizen Involvement Committee, “the authority to hire and fire its staff.” That authority is usurped by this proposed cut in staffing.

But frankly and more importantly, this amended budget is disrespectful and deeply offensive to so many of us who have contributed so much of our time and energy to improving citizen involvement in Multnomah County. I know I speak for the other members of the Citizen Involvement Committee, who have spent countless hours over many years in this effort, when I say that this budget undermines so much of the progress we’ve made in the last few years to strengthen citizen involvement in all aspects of the County.

The repercussions of this action will last well beyond the next fiscal year and your terms in office. It will take many years to rebuild the citizen involvement program, presuming there is a willing group of citizens who are eager to pick up the pieces you leave behind. It will take many years to restore even the basic level of staffing and minimum level of funding that we have now.

I believe that all of us who devote our time and energies to public service, whether we are elected officials, paid staff or volunteers, seek to make a real and tangible difference for the programs and services we involve ourselves with and the citizens we serve. I am so proud of the work we on the Citizen Involvement Committee have achieved in the last few years in enhancing the effectiveness and services of the Office of Citizen Involvement.

As you can tell, this is a deeply personal issue for me. I did not spend six years on this Committee, and two of them as its chair, putting in my time and my talents and efforts, only to have my efforts, and those of so many others, undercut at the eleventh hour in a hidden process in which a majority of you has decided to cut a very limited piece of funding for so important a function.

I also want you to think long and hard about the message that cutting citizen involvement will send to the citizens of Multnomah County as to the value you place in their ideas and active participation. And ask yourselves if this is part of the legacy you want to leave at the County.

At a time when public mistrust and cynicism in government remains high, cutting what little money is dedicated to citizen involvement makes no sense, and it sends a terrible message to citizens of Multnomah County about the value you place in their ideas and contributions. I implore you to reconsider the proposed cut in staffing for the Office of Citizen Involvement, restore funding to the level proposed in the Chair’s budget, and continue to work with us going forward to improve and strengthen citizen involvement in Multnomah County.

Thank you.

  • E'an Todd (unverified)

    I was reduced to hysterical fits of angry laughter when I found out they were going to CHANGE the ordinance to make their hatchet job legal. Nevermind using a computer program to make their votes on budget priorities SECRET.

    Seriously. WTF.

  • schooter (unverified)

    Why is it that budget shortfalls are always the excuse for cutting funding to citizen involvement efforts?

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