The race for Multnomah County chair is between candidates Jessica Vega Pederson and Sharon Meieran. Both have been county commissioners since 2016.
Whichever candidate doesn’t get the chair position will continue to serve as commissioner for at least two years. So throughout this election cycle these two candidates have had to campaign on being the strongest leader, without damaging existing relationships with their fellow commissioners.
The winner will replace outgoing chair Deborah Kafoury, who has served in the role since 2015 and is term-limited from running again.
In separate interviews with OPB, Vega Pederson and Meieran spoke about what has prepared them for the role of chair, and how Oregon’s largest county government can better address homelessness.
Here are their answers, edited for length and clarity:
Q: Explain to the average person what the chair does.
Vega Pederson: So people can think of the chair as the chief executive for the government of Multnomah County. She’s responsible for managing the more than 5,000 employees. And one of the most important functions of a chair is developing the multi-billion dollar budget that the board votes on every year and really determines the spending priorities and the work that the county will do that year. The chair is also a leader of Oregon’s third largest government. I also see the chair as being a key convener of leaders and stakeholders to come together. And then the other role that the chair has is serving as the head of the Board of County Commissioners, which is really about setting the agenda for the board meetings, setting the priorities, driving the discussions.
Meieran: Before understanding what the chair does, it is important to know what Multnomah County does as a local government. The county’s primary function is to provide health and human services for people who are historically marginalized, underserved or don’t earn enough income to meet their basic needs. And those include homeless services, mental health and addiction services, etc. And so in the local government, the organization, the county that chair is basically the chief executive officer. So she writes the budget, which is over $3 billion. She hires, fires, oversees all of the department heads. She’s a gatekeeper for information and data and basically sets the direction and vision for the county.
Q: What about your personal and professional experiences have prepared you for this role?
Vega Pederson: I have worked as a community leader in different capacities, either as a volunteer or in elected office, for over two decades here in Portland. I started off as a volunteer with groups like the Sierra Club, I was a neighborhood association member and then I was elected in 2012 as the first Latina to serve in the Oregon House. I’m currently a Multnomah County commissioner. I represent a specific district, and my district is mainly Southeast and East Portland. I also have 14 years of experience in the technology sector as a project manager. I’m a mom of two kids and I’ve lived in East Portland for the past 17 years out here in Hazelwood. My husband is a small business owner.
All of that has generated this perspective of really working for the people who don’t have a voice, whose issues are not traditionally talked about or worked on in the halls of power. As a county commissioner I brought a group of people together to do something amazing for our children and make an investment in quality universal preschool and getting Preschool For All passed. So all of that is the kind of legacy, the work and the perspective I bring running for county chair.
Meieran: I really do feel like this is a culmination of my professional work. I have really engaged in public service throughout multiple careers now. I was a lawyer, I’m still working as a doctor and have been a county commissioner for a few years. And in each space I have focused on addressing issues such as mental health, addictions, access to services, getting care and support to people who are most vulnerable … And at each step of the way, I have really strived to have a greater and greater impact. I have done a lot of work related to the core work of the county, but what you can do at the county level has an impact on a broader level on more people.
That’s why I’m seeking the role. Everything that I have done has been aligned with that: as a lawyer; working as an appointed special advocate; doing children’s advocacy; being a volunteer for Portland’s Street Medicine; working with people living outside. So, I don’t just hear third- or fourth-hand what people are experiencing; I talk to them and see it.
Q: We’re gonna talk about a big issue in the county: Homelessness. What agencies and jurisdictions should the county be working with to address this issue? Who are the stakeholders here?
Vega Pederson: We need to be working with all of our partners, all of our jurisdictions, to address this issue because it is an issue that crosses jurisdictional boundaries. I always say that the average person shouldn’t have to know what the county does, what the city does, or what the Metro does, right? They just need to know that the government is working well together to bring real solutions to the problems. The county needs to be partners with the city of Portland, and we need to be partners with Metro, especially now, because they have the regionwide housing bond and they have the regionwide supportive housing services measure, both of which are really critical to putting resources into place to get people safely off the streets into housing, and preventing people from becoming homeless in the first place.
We absolutely have to be partners with the state as a jurisdiction, with our state legislators, and with the governor in terms of recognizing that this isn’t just a Portland issue. It’s actually a statewide issue and local governments can’t solve it alone, we need this to be a priority for the state. With the federal level we need the scale of the government to bring resources to bear as well.
Meieran: That is such a great question because there are so many jurisdictions and entities and stakeholders that need to be involved in this issue. And the question is more than who is involved; it is how we make a functioning system of implementation, oversight, and accountability. Our system clearly needs to involve local governmental partners such as Metro, Multnomah County’s sister counties, Washington and Clackamas, the city of Portland, and also our East County jurisdictions that have not been represented currently in our efforts. We need representation from our local legislative offices.
Then there are the community-based organizations who are the big ones that do a lot of this work, but also our mutual aid organizations that are maybe not contracting with the county but are doing the work on the ground. We need behavioral health at the table, which is mental health and addictions. We need public health at the table which oversees so much, including vector control and infectious disease. We need everyone together rowing in the same direction with a shared understanding and effective, efficient mechanisms to make decisions and get work done.
Q: What are some things that you think the county is doing right in addressing homelessness? And what is something that you think the county is doing wrong or could be doing better as far as addressing homelessness?
Vega Pederson: I think one of the things that the county did right was to recognize homelessness as a crisis issue years ago. When I was first coming on board as a county commissioner in 2016, my very first meeting that I had was with the Joint Office of Homeless Services director. And the day I was meeting with him was the same day that they were signing the Intergovernmental Agreement with the city of Portland. So I think recognizing that we needed to make a systems change to work more collaboratively together to address homelessness early on was a really good thing.
I think the work that we’re doing to really elevate the role of peer support, making sure that people with lived experience are part of not just coming up with the solutions, but actually doing some of the work in implementing that work, is really key. That’s a model that we’re using with our soon to open downtown behavioral health resource center that’s going to be opening next month.
Meieran: So in terms of what the county is doing right, I think the county put forth the concept of a Joint Office of Homeless Services that, as envisioned, would bring together a wide range of entities to address all facets of this very complex issue. The county has built relationships and established partnerships with many community-based organizations providing services and that’s a good start. The county supported Metro in passing measures providing more resources for housing itself and supportive housing services. And the county did adopt Built for Zero, an initiative that brings data and a person-centered approach to using the resources.
Sadly, I would say that my list of what the county is doing wrong is much more extensive. We have systems that are completely dysfunctional. The joint office structure has the potential to really bring people together and address the broad needs related to homelessness. It has fallen very short of that promise and there’s no clear structure and there’s no transparency. There’s not really coordination or communication with the East County jurisdictions or others. The agreement itself actually conveys really all of the authority to the county and the county chair and that’s a problem.
Q: What lessons should county leaders have learned from the COVID-19 pandemic?
Vega Pederson: The pandemic was really such an unprecedented test of Multnomah County as a government and our capacity to adapt and respond to multiple concurrent emergency crises. The stress of the pandemic on our organizations has really demonstrated clear areas where we can strengthen our system to better support our employees and better serve our community. We really need to make sure that we are not just valuing people with their wages, but making sure that we have the support in place so that they can do the work that they need to do in a safe environment in an effective way.
I also think that the pandemic really demonstrated how the government, at every level, needs to do a much better job about identifying and communicating and reaching out to BIPOC communities, to immigrant and refugee communities, senior communities, and really making sure that critical information is getting to them in ways that they can understand. I think this also showed, very strongly, that we have to strengthen our emergency management capabilities because we know that there’s gonna be another wildfire, there may be another heat dome, there’s gonna be a winter storm, there’s potentially going to be a major earthquake.
Meieran: As a physician who worked in the E.R. during COVID, I would say first and foremost is the need to proactively have a plan ready so that we can deploy when we need it. I have not seen a document that says ‘Here’s what we’ve taken from the pandemic. Here are the lessons we’ve learned.’
I think that we have learned the need to engage cooperatively with the community, so that we are really communicating well and people are aware of what’s going on. I spoke to a larger strategic plan, but also a very clear communications plan that is ready to deploy that can reach people who are vulnerable or marginalized, and who are at highest risk, so that again, when the emergency hits, we’re not scrambling.
Q: What is a vote or decision that the county board has made in the past few years with which you disagreed and what would you have done differently?
Vega Pederson: This wasn’t really a board decision, but how the county responded to what we saw during the pandemic. The impact that the pandemic was having on the number of people living outside, the size of encampments that we were seeing, and really some of the ancillary effects of those camps; whether that was from a health and safety perspective, seeing more trash and garbage, and even issues like rats.
All of these things came up because of the correct public health reasons: Limiting sweeps so that we weren’t going to be spreading COVID among different communities. But we didn’t do a good enough job coordinating the response to that decision, which was about how we make sure that we are doing better trash pickup. How are we doing more outreach to people that are living there to make sure that they have the resources that they need? What do we need to be doing in terms of vector control to to really recognize that? And I think we’re still seeing unfortunately some of the effects of that to this day.
Meieran: There’s a lot of alignment of values on our current board and it’s really great. But one big one where I voted against the majority of the board was the way we invested the business income tax revenue. We had an extra $30 million. We urgently put out a plan devised by the chair and the mayor, behind closed doors, to immediately invest in some of the crises around homelessness. And when I actually looked at what the investments were in, they were things that I know from working on the ground, from working in these systems, would actually not have a significant impact. They’re the kind of things that may sound good, may look good to be acting urgently, but at the end of the day, they’re not going to make a difference. And you’re gonna see a sprinkling like fairy dust of all of this money that could have had a tremendous impact if we had only taken even a couple of weeks more to really make intentional deep decisions.
Q: Tell me what your priorities would be as far as helping marginalized communities, and what your diversity, equity and inclusion goals will be, if you were to win this election?
Vega Pederson: One of my priorities is going to be: How do we as a government, and I as an elected leader, really make sure we’re doing the work to address systemic racism? And I think that touches the county’s work in several ways. I think one of the things that we have to do internally is really incorporate our diversity, equity, inclusion goals by inclusively leading with race in our county practices with hiring and mentoring and promotion. All of that is work that we need to be doing.
It’s work that unfortunately, I think, fell a little bit to the side when everybody was focused on the pandemic. But there’s a renewed commitment to the program which is called the Workforce Equity Strategic Plan. And so that’s work that I’m gonna be very committed to as the Multnomah County chair, but that work definitely goes outside just the doors of the Multnomah County buildings. It has to do with how we’re working with the community.
Meieran: This is some of the most important work that we do as a county. Many of the individuals who are the people we work with at the county are from historically marginalized underserved groups or BIPOC, Black, Indigenous communities, other people of color, immigrants, refugees, LBGTQIA+ community. There are so many individuals and communities that we serve, that we need to engage with in ways that are effective. It is essential that we include people who are most impacted by our policies in the decision making around those policies, and that’s something that I have taken to heart.
Q: I wanted you to talk a little bit about your campaign strategy and how that might change what we might see now, that we’re getting a little closer.
Vega Pederson: This is a really important and critical time for my campaign. I am really proud of the very broad and deep coalition of leaders and organizations, community members who are supporting my campaign. I think we saw the results of that in the May primary election where I got 42% of the vote in a field of six. This isn’t a kind of campaign where we have like hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars to be spending on TV ads or paid canvassing and things like that. So it’s really about the people who are in this race and committed to my campaign because they believe in me and they believe in my vision for Multnomah County.
Meieran: It will involve targeted direct outreach in ways that are the most effective at reaching large numbers of people. Though the campaign contribution limits, which I advocated for and actually supported, do make it very difficult to get a message out to the hundreds of thousands of people in a county this large. We will be using every dollar that we have to figure out the ways to reach people that need to vote and to share a message of the need for change and accountability in our local government.
Q: Do you have a response to the Oregon AFSCME Local 88 filing an Unfair Labor Practice and Elections Complaint against you ? (This question was only asked to Meieran.)
Meieran: I am somewhat limited in what I can say because it is in litigation, but I was absolutely stunned by these allegations. I will be vigorously challenging them based on the facts, as well as the conclusions reached. The county chair actually sent out an email to all of the county representatives and the county employees in that union, explaining how individual commissioners aren’t even involved in the bargaining process. I show up for our county employees all the time and work very well with them. It’s really interesting timing, this complaint about an alleged conversation from four months ago is suddenly coming out right before ballots drop and it feels very political, and I hope it’s not.