SWNI Seeks to Rebrand, Not Fix Past Behaviors
To paraphrase a famous video game quote: SWNI. SWNI never changes.
This story should have been out days ago, but the longer I’ve worked on this story, the more documents I get, and the more amazed and frustrated I become. In the course of a week I’ve received a distilled version of what many others in the community have seen for at least a decade.
To start the story, I would strongly suggest reading the Portland Mercury story here before continuing on. Don’t worry, we’ll wait.
We first covered Southwest Neighborhoods, Inc. last year, when they failed in a lawsuit attempting to hide public records from members of the public. A lot of background into SWNI and its support of racist policies going back nearly fifty years is available in our article that we wrote then, so we’ll try not to repeat ourselves too much. The lawsuit was brought by board members who had been harassed out of their positions for attempting to investigate concerns of mismanagement of funds. Above and beyond the 2011 conviction of former employee Virginia Stromer’s embezzlement of $130,000, these questions eventually led to a forensic audit ordered by the city that found that 7% of the $3.17 million in taxpayer funds SWNI received since 2010 were mismanaged or misspent.
Questions were also raised about an additional $66k in Paycheck Protection Program loans that were received from the federal government, and later forgiven, despite the fact that the nonprofit’s payroll was already secured through city funds. A combination of any and all of these eventually led to City Council stripping SWNI of their status as a District Coalition, instead assigning two people from the city’s Civic Life bureau to oversee coordination with the variety of neighborhood associations in Southwest Portland. Even while the audit looming over their head, they believed they could bury the past in the public’s eye, applying for a second $66,000 PPP loan (which was denied at the bank level), more as a way to ‘reinvent themselves’ than help the community. A recently received 2021 email makes it clear:
The money can be used to rebrand SWNI […] giving us time to either dissolve the old corporation with its baggage and forming a new one with a new name which leaves the old baggage behind.Leslie Hammond, former SWNI president
[T]he PPP money was money which was designed to keep people employed and to help them move forward. It buys us time to transition to what the new Southwest Voices might be.
The nonprofit went into hibernation, still acting as though they were a district coalition, hoping that they could find a way out of the mess they found themselves in. With the ouster of Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty in last year’s election, and Mayor Wheeler putting Commissioner Dan Ryan in charge of Community and Civic Life, they saw their chance.
In a special meeting held last week, March 15, SWNI President Steve Mullinax, in his opening comments, laid out the case that claimed the city no longer cared about their troubled past:
Commissioner Ryan’s office has said [neighborhood associations] need a positive reset […] The commissioner is more interested in what we can do moving forward than what has transpired in the past.Steve Mullinax, SWNI Board President
What proceeded in the meeting, which was limited to only the resolution that they were preparing to try to make their case to the city (the latest draft available at the time of writing is here), only served to highlight just how far the organization has to go.
But the troubles had just begun
Hold on to your butts.John “Ray” Arnold (played by Samuel L Jackson), Jurassic Park
SWNI members openly admitted that the lack of city funding was significantly damaging their ability to stay alive, stating that this resolution was their last best effort to remain in business. All the while, Second Vice President Laura Campos, who identified as BIPOC in the meeting, repeatedly brought up issues of the board and its members not doing enough to address a lack of equity. She even went so far as to vote no on the resolution, stating “Your words don’t match your actions.” She made mention of a variety of microaggressions that were done against her at a recent retreat, which earned her a verbal reprimand for ‘attacking other individuals’ by Board president Steve Mullinax.
When the language focusing on SWNI’s desire to get city money was finally voted on, I spoke up with the first of several questions I had drafted during the conversation. At the time I was focused on, as they were talking about money so much, trying to get more concrete answers to ‘how are you going to properly manage the money’ instead of the ‘we promise we’ll do better’ interpretation I got from the conversation. My question was put into chat so as not to interrupt the meeting.
Within 30 seconds of posting the question, I was banned from the meeting.
No warning, no explanation, just … a critical question met with ejection. Marie Tyvoll, a local resident who has been pushing for accountability with SWNI and critical of their actions, tried to ask questions later in chat as to why I was kicked out of the meeting, only to be verbally reprimanded and threatened with expulsion herself.
The fine art of bullying
Withholding information is the essence of tyranny. Control of the flow of information is the tool of the dictatorship.Bruce Coville, author (1977-present)
Clearly, I was able to rejoin the meeting using a second Zoom account. But I had to use a completely different computer. At the moment I have no idea what will happen the next meeting I attempt to join. The message from the meeting hosts was clear: your questions are not welcome here.
And it was certainly not the first time that this kind of censorship has happened. Courtney Vaughn (the author of the Mercury article at the opening to this writing), when she wrote two years ago for Pamplin Media’s Southwest Connection, had a blistering rebuke for the organization on Twitter:
Marie Tyvoll, who was instrumental to the lawsuit that confirmed the district coalitions were de facto government entities, shared emails that showed during the early days of the case, she and co-plantiff Shannon Hiller-Webb were painted as using ‘McCarthy tactics’ for doing due diligence (then an active board member) by other board members.
Emails provided went the step further to show other board members publicly belittling Ms. Tyvoll, saying “shame on you for even asking” the board to support the forensic audit, one claiming a ten year history with a local neighborhood association and another 8 years of economic development work in New York
Similar harassment was noted by former board member and attorney Jim McLaughlin as a result of his attempts to uphold the law in the 2011 Stromer case, when a slander campaign forced his own departure from the board.
Carol Porto, the Treasurer and Secretary for the South Burlingame Neighborhood Association and former SWNI secretary, wrote in an email to Civic Life how the bad behavior of SWNI board members caused her entire neighborhood organization to formally leave SWNI.
A litany of allegations were levied against the organization in her bid to educate the city on why it should not refund the organization. She witnessed numerous acts of bullying, belittling and character assassination attempts from board officers and members towards those with minority opinions, something that I witnessed firsthand in the latest meeting.
This behavior is characteristic of a white supremacist culture. People who advance equity and proper practices have been the recipients of the greatest amount of bullying at SWNI. SWNI targets whistleblowers or those with other positions until they ultimately leave the organization or are bullied out.Carol Porto, Treasurer, South Burlingame Neighborhood Association (SBNA)
When she worked on SWNI’s Nominating Committee, tasked with looking for qualified people to approach for board and committee chairperson positions, her instructions were only to reach out to current and past members to see if they wanted to come back or continue in their positions.
SWNI has been an ingrown and self-perpetuating organization as long as I have been aware of it.Carol Porto, SBNA
In our own research, we have indeed seen the same cadre of names showing up in records going back at least as far as the Stromer case.
Ms. Porto even pointed out that she had been living in the same home since the 1980’s, and had never even heard of SWNI until coursework for a PSU class she was taking prompted her to research neighborhood associations.
She also shared copies of emails with the city showing where, in October of 2020 and in response to the lawsuit, then SWNI president Leslie Hammond pushed for a change in bylaws explicitly to strip Shannon Hiller-Webb from her board position. Allegations were even raised of a secret Executive Committee (in violation of Civic Life open meeting requirements) meeting in June of 2020 where statements were made that “Marie [Tyvoll] and Shannon [Hiller-Webb] were mentally unstable” and that the board president was looking for an attorney to file a cease and desist letter on the whistleblowers. Current president Steve Mullinax was reportedly present at that meeting.
This email had come to me two days before the meeting, and had I had the energy to read it then, a particular warning that Ms. Porto gave the city would have been a strong portent for me:
Any person asking questions and giving or asking for points of clarification to those in power at SWNI are actions that are considered dissent and they face the mute button.Carol Porto, SBNA
Even as I work on final edits before publication, more and more documents are brought to my attention. Another Portland resident of Choctaw and Cherokee descent came forward with descriptions of a history of abuse by the board, opening with “I have never felt welcome or safe to engage in the SWNI community, especially after I have watched how they bullied people out of the room and repeatedly harmed and mistreated an Indigenous woman [Second Vice President Laura Campos] on their board.”
He went on to point out clearly how, while fully funded by the city, SWNI took PPP funds, closed their doors to the public, and paid people who did no COVID related work. The only marginally meaningful things they did was providing a Zoom account and a single mailer listing COVID resources (a mailer that was funded through grants and City funds, not PPP funds). Emails that were prepared for a City Council presentation (but ultimately refused by Council) showed that even then president Leslie Hammond knew they were just ‘grabbing money off the table’
I knew you did not fully understand the PPP and that it was not based on [COVID] related losses. […] we got the money because our economic future was uncertain [due to City stripping funding pending the audit]Leslie Hammond, Former President, SWNI
Eventually, SWNI spent the money they got from PPP, and possibly more, on legal fees to fight against those trying to do due diligence and transparency. Then-president Hammond was even documented during a meeting claiming that Civic Life approved with the idea of applying for PPP loans, a statement the Director of Civic Life later stated was patently untrue and had to formally request SWNI correct.
The clouded lens of equity
Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are.Benjamin Franklin, Founding Father
Mx. Sally Eck (she/they), in an email they sent to the city, was laser focused on the organizations ongoing failings in regards to equity training. In 2019, they’d been invited to a board meeting to observe as part of a request for a proposal for training on managing meetings. Their response found that the board would require “sustained, long-term facilitation” by a “neutral party” to handle meetings equitably, more specifically:
The [then] board president did not preside over the board meeting with transparency or an equity lens.
Perhaps most evident was that equity issues were continually tabled and brushed off as irrelevant.Sally Eck, in a 2023 email, referencing the 2019 meeting
Mx. Eck had even gone so far as to offer a donation of $6,000 worth of their professional services to assist with these issues, but the offer went unanswered. It was only later that they learned the board had, in a mind-numbingly massive 15 to 2 (with 4 abstentions) voted down any attempt at equity training. The only two yays? Marie Tyvoll and Shannon Hiller-Webb (who were, for their trouble, bullied out of their positions). To this day, several of the ‘no’ votes still hold significant positions of authority in the organization: President Steve Mullinax, Secretary Janet Hawkins, Land Use chair Gary Runde and Hillsdale Business Association delegate Don Baack. The only other elected officer in the organization, Laura Campos, was one of the abstentions.
In the middle of 2020, Ms. Campos, then the chair for Equity and Inclusion, resigned in protest, stating that the board president had made it impossible for her to chair her own meetings. Her email closed with strong words: Enough is Enough. Silence is Complicity.
Issuing threats such as “If you do this, you’ve made an enemy of me.”Laura Campos, quoting then President Leslie Hammond
Eventually Ms. Campos did return to the organization, current serving again as the Equity chair as well as the 2nd Vice President. But even with the return of an equity minded individual to the board, Mx. Eck notes, SWNI “has not considered board equity and inclusion training since I attended the board meeting in 2019”, and that the impact of it’s equity committee is unclear.
With no metrics ever planned and a history going back years, any plans for how SWNI plans to suddenly become equitable have escaped the imagination of this writer.
I’m surprised that I’ve survived my own dysfunction, really.George Michael, Musician (1963-2016)
We tried to reach out to SWNI board members using their official mailing list email as part of our work on this story, and were met with a surprising error: the mailing list no longer existed. Attempts to manually email all of the swni.org email addresses listed on their Board page gave worse news. Six of the nine email addresses no longer existed. The only elected officer with a working email was President Mullinax (who has not responded to any of our emails at the time of publication). This was quite surprising, because what I initially thought was a cost-cutting measure I learned was a free service provided by their email provider
Also absent is seven of the 29 Director positions on the site, either blank or listed as ‘open’. Several of these are for board representation at the neighborhood level, but the First Vice President position being empty was something that jumped out at us immediately.
It seems Ms. Porto’s comments about artificially limiting their attempts to seek new talent has caused branching systemic issues.
The lack of business emails is troubling for a whole different reason. Almost every single email that I reviewed for this article was littered with personal email addresses for active board members. And this was years after the public scandals of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s ‘private email servers’. And even after 2020’s OPB article reporting on former Commissioner Amanda Fritz using her private email to communicate with SWNI board members, in violation of city rules. It’s hard to expect they will magically start using company emails for all board communications, to allow for public records transparency if they gain funding.
Your words don’t match your actions.Laura Campos, SWNI Second Vice President
At the end of the day, many neighborhood associations, some that may well face similar lack of “ingrown” membership, voted in favor of supporting SWNI. Many spoke out specifically calling out the failings of the City-run coalition office, and bemoaned the lack of them doing beyond the bare minimum to manage communications with a group that covers a large swath of South Portland. Many seemed nostalgic for the ‘good old days’ and with it the ‘Old Boys Club’ that came with it.
SWNI has, for it’s part, pledged in its resolution to make “material changes in our organizational structure and mission […] with an equity lens” as well as being “proactive in engaging people [who] may not have felt welcomed or adequately represented in the past.”
The words written on paper say that, but the words spoken in the meeting were focused on going back to the status quo, hopeful to have a large paycheck again with a City Council willing to turn a blind eye to its use. To this day, SWNI has not publicly acknowledged the forensic audit that resulted in their delisting by the city, and nothing in their proposal gives metrics or evidence that anything has changed since 2021.
If that happens, they may face an uphill battle, however. As a de facto government organization, they would certainly once again be subject to public record requests, and quite likely held to other legal standards that government agencies have to abide, such as First Amendment protections and Oregon’s open meeting laws.
With or without City Councils blessing, SWNI may face renewed legal challenges with regards to it’s PPP loan. While it was forgiven, the White House has recently signed laws giving prosecutors up to 10 years to file charges in fraud cases regarding relief like the PPP, as well as options for new civil prosecutions. SWNI, for it’s part, continues to maintain that the loans were gained and used in accordance with the law.
When we wrote our story last year, we closed out with the following line: [SWNI is] effectively burying their heads in the sand and hoping the controversies will one day blow over.
It seems they feel comfortable pulling their heads back out now.