Opinion: The Portland Clean Energy Fund is built on accountability, transparency and accountability

Carmen Rubio and Sam Baraso

Rubio, a Portland City Commissioner, oversees the Office of Planning and Sustainability which houses the Portland Clean Energy Fund. Baraso is program manager for the Portland Clean Energy Fund.

Portlanders are justifiably proud of our history of bold climate leadership. Yet we have seen this great work primarily benefit white and high-income Portlanders for generations.

Portland’s Clean Energy Community The Benefit Fund, or PCEF as it is commonly known, was designed to bridge this disparity: to build climate resilience, support low-income Portlanders and Portlanders of Color, and dismantle inequitable systems rooted in the history of white supremacy in our region. We do this in part by combating the insidious and false narrative that many people of color know: when it comes to large sums of money – whether it’s grants, bonds, loans or other investments – we do not have the capacity or experience to manage them responsibly.

As the first program of its kind in the country, the people of Portland should be proud of this program. Portland-style, it was born out of grassroots political action – designed, implemented and governed by frontline communities impacted first and most significantly by climate change. And the people of Portland overwhelmingly approved of it.

We take this responsibility seriously and respect it for the unprecedented opportunity it is and continues to be.

And we have already seen some of these opportunities come to fruition. The inaugural grants we awarded last year funded projects to retrofit homes, improve efficiency in affordable housing projects, purchase ductless heat pumps for low-income homes and apartments , planting many trees and replacing the roadway with native vegetation in east and southeast Portland.

Now, as we enter our next phase, we share a common goal with our critics: to continually improve the program so that it operates with unparalleled accountability, accountability and transparency while achieving our critically important mission. We are creating a model for the rest of the world to follow, and we want to do it right.

Regardless of how comfortable we are as pioneers in the fight against climate change, we are still gathering feedback and learning, much like other start-ups aiming to bring about positive change. An audit released last month by the city auditor outlined some of the ways we can improve. And as a start-up company, we seek the same opportunity offered to these other young programs: the chance to innovate, to make mistakes, to learn and to succeed.

Significant changes are already underway and have been since January. We started by adopting additional safeguards in grant guidelines and proposal review processes for all applicants. We have broadened and lengthened our professional background and benchmark reviews on applicant organizations and their key personnel, and set parameters to appropriately determine the size and scope of grants. These changes help strengthen our fiduciary oversight while responsibly enabling organizations to build a positive track record and scale for growth.

It is important to correct a common misunderstanding about our program and audit findings: we already specify performance measures in every contract. The audit recommended establishing program performance objectives. We agree with this conclusion and have been working to establish these objectives for some time. Long before the audit, we began engaging with stakeholders to ensure that all of our metrics are both appropriate and robust. We will continue to refine existing metrics this summer and create an easy-to-use digital dashboard for everyone to see how these investments are directly impacting members of our community who have been sidelined for far too long.

We are bridging disparities for frontline communities by centering their voices, validating the leadership that exists within Black, Indigenous, Latinx and other communities of color and thereby ensuring that this time our communities are not left behind. account but that they in fact determine their future.

To those who have suggested we stop funding projects until we have implemented all of the auditor’s recommendations – we strongly disagree. We can both immediately invest in climate resilience and carefully develop a responsive and accountable program. These are not mutually exclusive goals.

The people of Portland need the projects funded by the PCEF and they need them now. Climate change is not stopping or even slowing down, and neither should our work. Our opportunity to build resilience is closing fast.

We have an ethical question before us: Are we delivering on our promise to voters — to address and address the challenges of climate change — but this time centering our low-income communities and people of color as decision makers? Or are we maintaining the status quo that brought us here? The answer is clear to us.

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