The race for Multnomah County chair is the most important November election contest you haven’t heard anybody talking about. The candidates are barred by law from spending much money on campaigning. But whoever wins gets near-total control of the county purse—and most of the homeless services spending in the region.
So last week, as the two candidates seeking the job met with out editorial board, we asked them to demonstrate their ability to identify wasteful spending.
The two candidates, Jessica Vega Pederson and Sharon Meieran, both sitting county commissioners, had very different responses. Below are the candidates’ answers. They’ve been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.
Jessica Vega Pederson:
“I think we have to look at our public safety investments and how we’re actually spending dollars, not just in the sheriff’s and District Attorney’s Office but what we’re doing in the Department of Community Justice, and some of the ways we’re investing in our nonprofit partners and making sure we’re not doubling work and investments that are also happening on the city side.
“The city’s Office of Violence Prevention is investing in some of the same community organizations that the county is investing in, and right now there aren’t any conversations happening to make sure [we’re not] duplicating the investments.
“One of the ideas I have as chair is collaborative budgeting within our community safety system: so the health department, our Department of Community Justice, the DA’s office, the sheriff’s office, and really coming together to look at our public safety investments and budget dollars as a whole to make sure everybody knows what the other is investing and working in, and the other piece is making sure the city is brought in.”
“It’s difficult to answer because we don’t have that oversight and accountability at the county. We don’t have a centralized way to identify if we’re getting what we paid for.
“I would say we are not using the dollars we do get in the most effective ways possible. I’ve said that about the mental health system for ages, and as I’ve been a student of the county over the past five years, I just see my concern growing. We have tons of money right now. I feel we’re likely not using it effectively in the Joint Office of Homeless Services in how we address homelessness.
“The most recent reporting on the supportive housing services measure and what we’re getting for our money, [for example]. We got $100 million from the measure. And we said we housed, invested in housing, for 1,200 people.
“I don’t believe that we have actual data and answers to the questions of: Where is the money going? What are the outcomes we’re expecting to get from our community-based organizations that we’re contracting with? We say things like ‘build capacity.’ We don’t say things like, we expect to house x, y, z. That information either isn’t there, I’ve asked for it time and again, or they’re holding it back from me.”