Lawsuit asks judge to declare Southwest Portland neighborhood group a public agency

By Rebecca Ellis (OPB)
Oct. 15, 2020 1:01 a.m.

One current and one former board member of Southwest Neighborhoods, Inc. — a nonprofit responsible for fostering civic engagement in Southwest Portland — are suing the group, asking a judge to rule that district coalitions are and required to turn over records to the public.

Shannon Hiller Webb, a current board member, and Marie Tyvoll, who left the board this past summer, have been pushing to see years' worth of records — including executive session minutes, emails, police reports and credit card statements. A former board member was convicted of embezzling $130,000 from the group in 2011, and Tyvoll and Hiller-Webb said they want to investigate potential financial wrongdoing. The plaintiffs said their public records requests were either ignored or denied.


The suit, filed in Multnomah County Circuit Court on Tuesday, asks the court to declare district coalitions in Portland are public bodies and responsible for turning over public records.

“They’re funded by the people and we deserve to have access to the documents,” said Hiller-Webb. “There can’t be a bias as to who gets access.”

In May, after the members appealed the public records request, former Multnomah County District Attorney Rod Underhill decided the group was not a public body and therefore not subject to Oregon’s public records law. The plaintiffs, represented by public records advocate Alan Kessler, asked the judge to reconsider, arguing the group should be considered a public agency because most of its money comes from the city. Last year, the city’s $307,000 grant accounted for 85% of SWNI’s budget, according to city documents.

SWNI has already handed over the records in question to the city. This summer, the city voted to withhold funding from the neighborhood group until the records had been handed over and a financial audit had been conducted. The group has given the city the documents for an audit. That audit is currently being conducted by independent auditing firm Marsh Minick, according to Margaux Weeke, a spokesperson for Commissioner Chloe Eudaly, who oversees the civic life bureau. Weeke said the city is expecting a progress report next week.

SWNI president Leslie Hammond did not respond to a request for comment on the suit.