Here we go again: new controversy sparked in the César Chávez street renaming process. This time, however, it seems the genuine powder-keg issue of immigration is being brought into the fray by an ad-hoc group hoping to preserve 39th Avenue.
Last year advocates of saving Interstate Avenue insisted their motivations for resisting the name change were purely economic and civic: It would cost too much to replace business stationery, and the city council didn’t follow its own code, they said.
This year, it’s a different story. Not all the signatures on a petition to rename a street after Chávez are by legal U.S residents, says a special report by the Save 39th Avenue committee. It says the city failed to verify the status of non-registered voters as legal residents of the United States.
Street renaming applications need a minimum of 2,500 signatures in support of the proposal from “legal residents of the City at large” according to a September memo from the City Auditor’s office. The city attorney defines a “legal resident” as “someone who lives within the city of Portland and intends to make Portland their home.”
The city’s broad interpretation of legal residency means illegal immigrants could have penned some of the signatures, says Eric Fruits, an economist who wrote the report. “It seems odd that someone can be illegally residing in the US and legally residing in the city of Portland,” he says.
The Save 39th Avenue committee has other concerns, as well. To read more, jump!
Furthermore, about 1 in 6 signatories appear to be high school students, according to Fruits. While petitioners were told the city would accept signatures from Portland residents age 16 and up, Fruits said, “It strikes me as a real flaw in the process that you can have high school students, who can’t vote…essentially drive city policy in terms of street renaming.”
There are also some fairly complex statistical concerns in the report about how the city auditor’s office verified the signatures the César E. Chávez Boulevard Committee submitted in two batches in October 2008 and January 2009. As simply as possible: Fruits complains that the city used a different signature verification process than it said it would - the city said it would combine the two petition submissions and verify 300 signatures overall. Instead, the city verified 600 overall, taking 300 from each batch. Even though the city counted more signatures than it planned to, Fruits was skeptical that their statistics are sound. Fruits' own math projects that the pro-Chávez campaign fell 22 signatures short of the city’s required 2,500. The verification Fruits used is the "combination sample method" process the city laid out in its September memo.
Did you follow that? If not, you may wish to re-read the last paragraph, just to be sure. Meanwhile, the city auditor's office says their process was in line with the September memo, and its math is sound.
“I’m not saying we know for sure that there’s enough or not enough,” Fruits says. “The only way we can do it now is to go back and verify it all to see if we have 2500 signatures.”
Responding to this report, the City Auditor LaVonne Griffin-Valade issued a memo Wednesday saying, “verifying this second batch using a random sample was consistent with the language of the 9/22/2008 memo to Council.”
It’s unclear whether Fruits’ arguments are gaining traction on city council, but the next step in the rename effort is a council hearing at city hall on June 23.
“Why was the city so lax in the first go-around?” Fruits wonders. “It gives the impression that the city process seems to be weighted toward some preordained result.”
“We were given the green light,” says Marta Guembes, head of the César E. Chávez Boulevard Committee. “If we did not have valid signatures, the process wouldn’t have started.”
Get the best of the Mercury each week in your inbox!