By Ed Langlois

Of the Sentinel

A Southeast Portland church and local residents have asked for another month to negotiate what penalties the church should pay if it breaks a good-neighbor agreement.

Portland city attorney Harry Auerbach told the City Council last week that an accord is close at hand between Sunnyside Centenary United Methodist Church and the Sunnyside Neighborhood Association.

The council canceled a June 7 agenda item to approve the highly charged settlement and rescheduled for Wednesday, July 12, at 2 p.m. This is the second time the church and neighbors have asked for a month's extension.

The two sides have snagged on the issue of sanctions. Some neighbors want the ultimate penalty to be closure of the free meal and prayer programs, events neighbors say have brought a rowdy and criminal element into the neighborhood.

Church leaders opt for less drastic penalties, such as suspension. They say that serving the poor, and often homeless, people of the area is too important to risk a shut-down.

'The agreement is close, but the final details are seemingly difficult to attain,' says the Rev. Steven Sprecher, superintendent of the Oregon-Idaho United Methodist Church.

The dispute over church service to the needy has simmered for more than two years. It erupted Jan. 14 when city hearings officer Elizabeth Normand assented to neighbors' bitter complaints and used land-use law to order that the prayer and meal nights be closed.

An international outcry over religious rights ensued. Outrage was especially strong because Normand decided to place a limit on the number of worshipers who could attend Sunnyside Methodist's Bible studies and Sunday worship.

Portland religious leaders, including the Archdiocese of Portland and many Catholic parishes, quickly formed a coalition and staged a protest that drew 1,200 people.

On March 1, the City Council overturned Normand's ruling, allowing the church to try to negotiate its last-minute remedy plan with neighbors.

Since then, the church and neighbors have met together and separately to piece together an agreement.

It has not come easily, but the twice-delayed accord could prove a foundation for all church-neighborhood conflicts, negotiators say.

The meal-night management plan and a good-neighbor agreement - repeatedly amended by both sides over the past 10 weeks - would require the church to regulate Wednesday and Friday meals more rigorously. Rowdiness and mischief would be recorded and offenders barred, the proposed policies hold.

The plan would allow neighbors periodic access to Sunnyside Methodist's leadership and would create a clear line of command over the meals, which up until now have been guided by the denomination's characteristic open democracy.

The hierarchical strategy draws heavily on the experience of the Catholic St. Francis Dining Hall, two miles away.

Neighbors have asked for a review body of church leaders, residents and police who will meet each month to take a close look at the meal nights.

The Archdiocese of Portland and leaders from St. Francis helped write guidelines for congregation-based meals to needy people. Those guidelines may be part of the agreement presented to City Council next month

Meanwhile, police have reported a decrease in complaints in the past two months.

The City Council approved the extension of talks without comment. In past meetings, the councilors and Mayor Vera Katz urged more churches to begin community service.