Throughout the United States, and in democratic governments around the world, an increasingly educated citizenry is demanding an equal role in the planning policy of local governments. Elected officials, recognizing the need to embolden its citizens, have looked for ways to reach out to the community. No where is this more apparent than in Portland, Oregon, where a number of endeavors seeking community input have been established by City leaders, such as Vision PDX, Community Connect, and voter-owned elections.

Progress needs to be made, however, and even the best examples of government and community collaboration can fall apart. In the summer of 2006, the City of Portland made an agreement with Warner Pacific, a private liberal arts college located in southeast Portland, to sell public land for campus expansion. The area in question was 10 to 20 acres of industrial use land located on the south side of Mt. Tabor, a unique geographical feature that sits in the center of southeast Portland. Mt. Tabor is host to a 200-acre public park, the City’s water reservoirs and an active and politically savvy neighborhood.

Discussions between the City and Warner Pacific concerning the sale were done in private and without public input, but as the agreement neared completion, the community became aware of the situation. Before a contract could be ratified by city council, neighbors from the Mt. Tabor and South Tabor Neighborhood Associations established a coalition to investigate ways to halt the sale. The intense interest coming from the two neighborhoods compelled the City to respond.

With the help of third party mediators, Portland Parks and Recreation (PPR) – the bureau responsible for the land on Mt. Tabor – met with community members to find a solution acceptable to everyone. After nine months of negotiation, an agreement was made that the land would remain public and that the City and community would work together to design a use for the land that was in the public’s best interest.

My project embarks on a journey through that partnership, as both a researcher and as a participating member of the planning process. Using a critical and an interpretive research approach, my aim is to understand the dynamics that formed this union and observe barriers that might halt it. Furthermore, and more important to me on a personal level, my aim is to understand how community members can efficiently and effectively communicate with traditional institutions on an ongoing basis. In addition to designing a use for the land on Mt. Tabor, the effort was to serve as a model for future community and government engagement efforts.

My close interaction with group members, due to my personal involvement in the relationship between neighbors and the City, which were at times contentious, gives me access to deeper understanding of communication between the groups. Using a mix of interviews, focus groups, observation, personal reflections, and countless City and community documents, I have a unique perspective to point out recommendations to all parties involved.

History

Though this project deals with the events that occurred between the fall of 2006 and spring of 2008, it is important to understand the importance of Mt. Tabor to Portlanders and the complex history behind the relationship between PPR and the Mt. Tabor community that led to this partnership.

Mt. Tabor

Located three miles east of the Willamette River in east Portland, Mt. Tabor is bordered by S.E. Yamhill Ave to the north, S.E. Mountain View Dr. to the east, S.E. Division Street to the south, and S.E. 60th Avenue to the west. It is the dominant landmark for the Mt. Tabor, Center and South Tabor neighborhoods, as well as the Hawthorne district.

One of the largest of the east Portland parks, Mt. Tabor Park is classified as a metropolitan park and attracts the City’s residents and regional visitors with its abundance of geological, ecological, historical and recreational resources. It is a wonderful haven in the heart of the city where Park users enjoy a beautiful natural sanctuary and quiet retreat from the surrounding urban environment. Recreational uses in the park are integrated with, but do not dominate or interfere with its natural character. While this metropolitan park serves people from around the city, it also feels like a neighborhood park.

Mt. Tabor’s origin as a volcano, one of only two extinct volcanoes located within the boundaries of a U.S. city (the other being in Bend, Oregon) makes it a hilly park with many steep slopes. Rising 300 feet to an elevation of 645 feet above sea level at the summit, it offers beautiful views of the surrounding city. The crater area is a significant, well-maintained feature of the park that includes an amphitheater that is frequently used for public concerts. Park users experience a variety of healthy and well-maintained landscapes from wooded areas with natural vegetation, to meadows, to irrigated lawns, to hard-surface basketball and tennis courts. Areas with natural vegetation are preserved and protected to encourage a variety of wildlife to thrive in the park. Birds are attracted to and stop off at Mt. Tabor on their migrations (City of Portland, 2000).

2000 Mt. Tabor Master Plan

In 1998, PPR initiated a public process involving a Citizens Advisory Committee (CAC) composed of neighborhood association leaders, local residents and representatives of other area and city interest groups to work with city employees to develop the Mt. Tabor Park Master Plan. Nine facilitated meetings with the CAC were held to direct the vision, goals, management and physical makeup of the park (City of Portland, 2000, January, p. 3).

In addition to collaboration with the CAC, three open house meetings for the general public were held at key stages of development to ensure broad public awareness and gain further input. “This process ensured that design decisions would reflect a wide range of expertise as well as community experience and opinion. Community involvement in the master planning process served both to enrich the quality of the resulting Master Plan and to organize community interest and advocacy for Mt. Tabor Park” (City of Portland, 2000, January, p. 7).

With their invitation to the public and other city bureaus for participation, PPR recognized that gathering information, input and ideas from diverse sources was key to building a successful vision for Mt. Tabor Park to guide management decisions well into the 21st Century. The result was deemed successful by all involved and produced a detailed vision with goals maintaining the integrity of the collaborative process, including:

Vision:

…Portland Parks and Recreation works closely and cooperatively with the community in its management of the park. Decisions about proposed changes in park use are in keeping with the Master Plan vision and goals. Proposed changes to uses in the park are considered and evaluated in light of their impacts on the character and condition of the park, other park users, and the surrounding neighborhood.

…Organizations, such as a ‘Friends of Mt. Tabor Park,’ work with PPR, Mount Tabor Neighborhood Association and other neighborhood, community, and park user groups to …evaluate compliance with the vision and goals of the Mt. Tabor Park Master Plan.

Goals:

… Goal 6: Relationship with Community

Develop and foster a close and cooperative relationship between PPR, other City Bureaus, and the community in the management, development, and preservation of the park (City of Portland, 2000, p. 21-23).

With this careful attention paid to detailing that the community has a voice in the management of Mt. Tabor Park and keeping its uses in compliance with the vision that was cooperatively agreed upon, it made the planned sale of the land that much more surprising.

Save Our Reservoirs

To some neighborhood insiders, however, the actions by the City limiting community input were not surprising. Empowered by the 2000 collaborative decision that ensured community involvement, Mt. Tabor neighbors paid close attention to all government policy concerning the park and their neighborhood. After a study of Portland’s open reservoirs in 2001 concluded that they held historical significance, neighbors rallied to include them on the National Register of Historic Places (Geller, 2004).

Searching through reams of public documents regarding the reservoirs’ historical significance, neighbors became acutely aware of public policy. When considerations were given to burying the city’s reservoirs out of concern for the safety of public drinking water shortly after the World Trade Center attacks, neighbors were quick to let city officials know they wanted to be involved with any decision.

Because they had proven themselves beneficial in visioning, community members expected a collaborative process on issues concerning the reservoirs. Process was a long time coming, however, and citizen investigation of the City’s budget discovered revenue bonds being urgently issued “to finance various projects” (City of Portland, 2004).

Once discovered, individual plaintiffs and organizations such as the Friends of the Reservoirs sued the Portland City Council for issuing bonds without proper public notification. Nearly a year later, a judge ruled in favor of the citizens, finding that notice was insufficient to inform the public, and that the citizens were denied their statutory referendum rights when the city issued the Revenue Bonds through an “emergency ordinance” (“Friends wins,” 2004).

In addition to the lawsuit, citizens persuaded City Council to convene a citizen panel to investigate options for the reservoirs. The Mt. Tabor Reservoirs Independent Review Panel recommended alleviating safety and health issues using enhanced security and water quality monitoring rather than burial (Mazza, 2004).

The due diligence of informed, resourceful citizens effectively halted the burial of the reservoirs, and the lawsuit brought against the City had implications state wide as the sale of bonds increasingly require clear explanations of use.

Mt. Tabor neighbors successfully challenged the City, showing the strength of the citizens, but not everyone approved of the actions on citizen groups like Friends of the Reservoirs. In a local newspaper, the Portland Tribune, city officials questioned the group’s heavy-handed tactics. Though appreciative of their tireless efforts, Commissioner Dan Saltzman felt that “there was an unnecessary level of attacks on people’s and organizations’ integrity that wasn’t necessary” (Anderson, 2004).

Tactics used by Friends are part of a growing trend among citizen action groups. Policymaking is under increasing scrutiny, and whenever decisions go against certain groups’ interests, outcry is loud and persistent. Local leaders are tired of confrontation, but when they try and make decisions like they used to, they are met with angry, articulate, and informed citizens (Leighninger, 2006).

For local government, balancing the needs of diverse constituents with the realities of tightening budgets is painstakingly difficult and needs daily attention and integrated communication to accomplish. Most people only participate when a problem that affects them directly has gone from bad to worse and reaction is heated (Leighninger, 2006). Though a “win” for citizens, relationships between the City and the Mt. Tabor neighbors weren’t healed, so tension and skepticism was allowed to fester.

Memorandum of Understanding

Just months after the judge’s ruling that the City was wrong in the way they delineated information on land use, PPR began discussions with representatives from Warner Pacific College who were inquiring about the purchase of the central maintenance facilities for their campus expansion.

Documents obtained from the City highlight conversations dating back to July 2005 and were initiated by Jim Francesconi, a former Portland Commissioner who’d recently returned to his private legal practice after an unsuccessful bid for mayor. Francesconi was representing Warner Pacific in the real estate deal to purchase the maintenance yard.

Speckled throughout communication that spans the length of these discussions, community involvement is continually brought up by both the City and Warner Pacific as a key factor in moving forward, yet the plans weren’t announced publicly until August 2006 in the college’s newsletter, The Experience. The announcement was made the day after a memorandum of understanding was signed with the City that established the talks as proceeding formally.

Though much discussion was still promised, neighbors felt that the decision had already been made, an edict had been handed down from above, and the community’s input wasn’t of concern. Knowing that this direction went against the vision collaboratively established in the 2000 Mt. Tabor Master Plan, neighbors prepared to make their voices heard.

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