It’s been a turbulent year for Southwest Neighborhood Inc., a nonprofit that encourages civic engagement and supports neighborhood associations in Southwest Portland.
The city council withheld funding from the embattled group this summer after some members raised concerns about financial mismanagement. An outside financial audit requested by the city seemed to bear out some of the claims. And now emails between the head of the organization and Commissioner Amanda Fritz are drawing scrutiny within City Hall.
Last year, the city provided the district coalition with about $300,000 in grant funding, accounting for 85% of its budget. Without City Hall agreeing to send more money their way, SWNI leaders have warned they may be in a dire financial situation. But the group has one elected official squarely in their corner: Fritz, a longtime advocate for neighborhood associations who will retire at the end of the month.
Emails obtained by OPB show Fritz reached out to the executive director of SWNI, Sylvia Bogert, from her personal email address about a week before the financial audit was completed. She was hoping to put a resolution in front of council to reimburse the group and wanted to find out how much money it had spent while the council withheld funding. The commissioner also asked Bogert who she would recommend to be the new head of the Office of Community and Civic Life, the city bureau that provides grant money to district coalitions like SWNI.
Chloe Eudaly, the commissioner currently in charge of the bureau, lost her seat this November. The mayor will decide who will replace her as the bureau head at the beginning of next year — a decision that, as Fritz notes in her email to SWNI, could have consequences for the group’s funding.
“As to whether you’ll get the full amount, it depends on the audit findings and who is assigned as OCCL Commissioner in January,” Fritz wrote in a Nov. 14 email to Bogert. “Do you have a recommendation on that?”
The correspondence highlights the close ties Fritz has maintained with the neighborhood association throughout her time as an elected official. Fritz said she’s been connected with SWNI in some capacity for 30 years — as a Southwest resident, as one of the group’s board members in the mid-90s, and as the one-time head of the civic life bureau, formerly known as the Office of Neighborhood Involvement. She said she plans to remain involved with the group when she leaves office.
On two email chains with Bogert, the commissioner used her personal AOL email address, prompting another commissioner’s office to start inquiring about the correspondence. A staffer for Eudaly’s office, which currently oversees the civic life bureau and thus responsible for SWNI, was concerned enough about the emails to ask the city attorney and the city auditor for input. They wrote they were concerned “that this is in conflict with ethics rules and [Human Resources Administrative Rules], warranting review and possible investigation.”
Fritz said she doesn’t believe the relationship raises issues around conflicts of interest and would advocate just as passionately for any neighborhood group.
“I’ve been very clear that I am an advocate for the neighborhood association system before I came into office, and throughout my time on city council. So I’d be doing this whether it was Northeast coalition, … I’ve been advocating for North Portland,” Fritz said. “It happens to be an organization that I know well.”
Fritz said she occasionally uses her personal email address when she works from home and is sending emails after hours or on weekends. In these instances, she will include her city email address on the exchange. She said she forgot to do so in these cases. When it was brought to her attention, she said she forwarded them to her city account.
Fritz’s actions appear to violate the city’s administrative rules that say employees and elected officials should always use their city email “when conducting City business.” Margie Sollinger, city ombudsman within the auditor’s office, said the office does not have the power to investigate elected officials and their staff, but that she flagged the email use for the city attorney’s office.
City Attorney Tracy Reeve declined to answer directly whether her office was looking into the matter, but said in a statement that her office is “confident that the appropriate steps are being taken by the Commissioner and the City to ensure that Commissioner Fritz’ correspondence related to city business is being archived appropriately.”
Fritz said she wanted to get SWNI’s funding back to avoid pre-holiday layoffs and restore the services SWNI provides, such as a monthly newspaper, which she said seniors in the area and people without internet access rely on for information about community services in the area. And she felt the outside audit, which painted SWNI as a poor steward of taxpayer dollars, was unfair to the group, failing to give them a chance to respond and fully incorporate all the information they provided.
But since the findings were returned to council, she said she’s dropped the resolution and the fate of SWNI’s funding will be left for the next council to determine.
“It’s going to be the next council who will make the decisions about what happens,” she said. “SWNI should not be abolished either actively or passively at this point.”