Thursday, May 07, 2009

Hillsdale's dilemma: No power, no leadership

It was all a bit embarrassing. About 25 for us sat, searched and scanned each other’s faces in the meeting room last night and couldn’t find a leader among us.

The result: for the indefinite future, the Hillsdale Neighborhood Association will be leaderless. It will have a vacant president’s seat. Instead, the association, which largely consists of the 25 or so people who show up to its monthly meetings, will be run by a reluctant, rag-tag triumvirate of officers, none of whom is willing to take charge.

What’s going on here?

Hillsdale is known to be one of the most active neighborhoods in Portland. A big reason for its reputation is the outgoing, decisive, outspoken president, Don Baack. In his nearly seven-years with the gavel, he made it known that we weren’t going to be rolled by City Hall— at least not without a fight.

Sure, he’s bent several people the wrong way, including a few neighbors. He was actually feared in some quarters of City Hall. Occasionally he’d impulsively speak for the neighborhood without consulting anyone.

But he always had our best interests at heart. And he was not above admitting when he’d been wrong.

There was only one Don Baack in the room last night, and he was stepping down.

And so we searched the faces.

“I have health problems in the family,” said one prospective candidate. No one suspected him of lying.

“My teaching demands don’t allow it,” said another, who was telling the truth.

“I’m traveling too much. I couldn’t be here much of the time,” said another and he was right.

One clearly qualified candidate was a former president, but he said, “I’ve done the job for 10 years. That’s enough.” Who could disagree?

There was no reason to question any of them. And even if there was, who would?

There were also the unspoken problems with the position and even with the association.

There are hardly any enticements to take the post. It doesn’t pay a dime. It carries no benefits. Delegating tasks to others isn’t easy (for the reasons cited above). And seeing what Don has gone through, is hardly inviting. People often show up in force at neighborhood association meeting only when they are pissed off.

Who wants that?

Then there’s the little problem that Portland neighborhood associations have neither money nor power. Ultimately they just meet. Sure, developers and city engineers are required to lay plans before the associations, but the outcome of such meetings carries no weight in law.

If there is any power at all, it’s in the ability to embarrass as a way of forcing action from public officials, property owners, developers or city engineers. The embarrassment can be amplified because we have an active community press to publicize the foibles of all of the above. (Three of us were at last night's meeting.)

And occasionally, just occasionally, the embarrassment — or threat of it — works.

In a way, my hope is that this blog post will do its small part to embarrass the neighborhood into producing a leader for the neighborhood association.

The next president has to be someone sort of, but not exactly. like, Don. A person with a dollop of righteous indignation. A person willing to jump up and down and yell, “You can’t do that! We live here! Who do you think you are!”

Recently I’ve concluded that Hillsdale needs some autonomy from the City of Portland. (Actually, I think it should secede, but one step at a time.) Give us, with no strings attached, some of the tax money we pay to the city. Say $200,000 per year. Let us decide what to do with it. Let us hire our own “city manager” to work with property owners and the City for change.

After last night’s meeting, I began to doubt my proposal. If no one would step forward to lead the neighborhood association, who would manage a semi-autonomous Hillsdale community?

But the more I’ve thought about it, our very lack of power is the problem. If Hillsdale had resources and authority to take control of more of its destiny, all kinds of folks might be willing to step up and lead.

For now, what we need most is leadership and a neighborhood association board that insist the City give us the power and resources to determine our own future.

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