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Over forty individuals make up the Mt. Tabor Central Yard and Nursery Planning Group. Though responsibilities and expertise vary among each member, three distinct interests are represented: PPR management, employees and union members of the yard and nursery, and the community.

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Author’s note: When I wrote this chapter, the budget of $465,000 for the Mt. Tabor Master Plan Update was in jeopardy of being axed. Shortly after finishing my project, the full budget was approved (I will make note of this in my final chapter)

A key reason this process has a significant chance at succeeding within the limited timeframe is because of the substantial funding it received from City Council. When the resolution was presented to Council in September 2007, PPR requested a budget of $465,000 to complete the work. A third of the budget was pledged from the bureau itself, and with its unanimous approval, Council resolved to fund the rest.

The amount would cover every line item on the budget, from the salaries of the project managers and the contract with the facilitators, to the production of the architectural RFP and funding for the community events. With the immense amount of work to be done in a limited amount of time, the money would afford us the opportunity to meet unimaginable deadlines.

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The deadline issued by the City for an updated Mt. Tabor Master Plan was January 2009.  From the onset, reaction to the timetable was of collective disbelief.  Rumblings from many communication members concluded, before the process even began, that it would be impossible and an effort should be made to get more time.

 

PPR noted that this would be an ambitious project on a short timeline, but political realities necessitated that the planning group move quickly.  As part of an overall funding strategy for Park facilities, PPR plans to include the master plan update to their 2010 bond package.  It is in the bureau’s best interest to proceed under the current commissioner, Dan Saltzman, who has invested in the project.  Future council changes are unknown, and with upcoming elections, swings of support could change by the new year.  Noting this reality, the planning group proceeded rapidly to obtain a solid commitment for continued funding from the current council by the end of year.

 

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I experienced a lot of anxiety when I first considered researching the Mt. Tabor planning group in order to gain insight into effective public participation. My introduction into ethnographic research through the Leadership in Ecology, Culture and Learning program (LECL) at Portland State University had me intimately question the role of the researcher.  Conversations with my peers, both in seminar and outside of the classroom, revolved around how we, as researchers, could take ourselves out of the research being conducted?  Or, would we take ourselves out of the research?

 

Learning about participatory-action research as a tool both muddled and cleared my confusion.  It muddled it because it throws the researcher straight into the research, creating as many, or more, observable moments than would otherwise materialize organically.  It clears it, though, because it acknowledges, and almost celebrates, that the researcher is inherently biased and that their action should be part of the research.

 

The idea that the researcher can be part of the research set my mind at ease, and I began to see the benefits of being intimately involved with the process while I was studying it.  I would have insight into personalities, conversations, and background that an outsider wouldn’t have.  Relationships with participants had been established and members would be approachable if I needed further information.  Furthermore, I would have the ability to relay my research back to the group, adding to the collective wisdom and completing the circle of reciprocity.

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Notice of the planned sale of Mt. Tabor land came to me in several different ways. In August of 2006, when Warner Pacific announced in their newsletter that they had signed a memorandum of understanding with the City to explore the purchase of the yard, I was President of the South Tabor Neighborhood Association (STNA). The college contacted me to request a meeting with neighbors to discuss their campus expansion. Unfortunately, that conversation wasn’t able to take place, for reasons I will explain below. Details of the purchase weren’t shared with me, and campus expansion plans were kept broad. Conversations were limited to a handful of phone calls and emails, but were always pleasant, and the college seemed genuinely interested in meeting with neighbors to win their approval and map out the future.

Shortly after the college contacted me, murmurs of discontent over its agreement with the City emanated from community members. Emails, phone calls and listserv postings questioning the integrity of the deal reached me, and neighbors seemed genuinely frantic that they were being purposely shut out of the process. For the most part, however, my South Tabor neighbors – those that live between southeast 82nd and 52nd to the east and west and S.E. Division and S.E. Powell to the north and south, were silent on the issue.

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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.

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Since the fall of 2006, I have been working in partnership with the City of Portland and the community to update the Mt. Tabor Master Plan – a visioning document that establishes the long-term use of public land on Mt. Tabor. At the same time, I have been earning my Master of Science degree from Portland State University, where I have been enrolled in the Leadership for Ecology, Culture and Learning program.

Interested, and active, in equitable partnerships, I chose to focus on the Mt. Tabor Central Yard & Nursery Planning Group for my culminating project to analyze the relevance and effectiveness of community partnership.  I even go so far as to make a recommendation or two ; )

In the coming weeks, I will be posting chapters from my research.  Please check back for updates.

Scott

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