WW’s General Election 2022 Endorsements: Multnomah County

Sharon Meieran has been crystal clear about the lack of rigor and urgency at the Joint Office of Homeless Services.

Sharon Meieran. (Mick Hangland-Skill)

Multnomah County Chair

Sharon Meieran


We don’t often switch an endorsement from the primary (in which we endorsed Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson for county chair) to the general election (in which we now endorse Commissioner Sharon Meieran). But these are unusual times. As with the Portland City Council race, the circumstances of this region have caused us to reconsider the decision we made in May.

Because of the authority vested in the position, the Multnomah County chair is by far the most powerful elected official in Portland. Unlike the city’s mayor, who has only a little bit more authority than the four city commissioners, the chair alone controls the county budget, the board’s agenda, and all county departments, including Health, Human Services and, most visibly, the Joint Office of Homeless Services.

It is this last office that swung our decision. In the six months since we endorsed Vega Pederson, there’s been no indication the county is any more interested in data or accountability for getting people off the streets. That’s led us to rethink our earlier pick, even though Vega Pederson whomped Meieran in the primary, 42% to 18%.

Originally from Indiana, Vega Pederson, 47, is a savvy politician who served two terms in the Oregon House (becoming the first Latina elected to the chamber) before winning her seat representing Multnomah County’s District 3 (Portland’s eastside from 34th to 148th avenues) in 2016 and getting reelected in 2020.

Vega Pederson’s largest accomplishment at the county, a Preschool for All measure in 2020, arose from a compromise with the Democratic Socialists of America. The group gathered enough signatures to put a preschool measure on the ballot, but Vega Pederson convinced the DSA to back off so her measure could go forward instead.

Like Mom and apple pie, universal preschool is a concept few oppose, but Vega Pederson rushed her measure through without ever really explaining why the county, which struggles to perform its existing duties, should create an entirely new department to compete with Portland Public Schools, the state of Oregon, and private players already in the preschool business.

This year, the Preschool for All budget is $59 million to serve 675 kids—more than $87,000 a head.

Vega Pederson says the program is on track and will bring in more money than it needs until new facilities ramp up (it will end the year with $132 million in reserves). But its launch does not inspire confidence in her fiscal responsibility as she seeks to control a larger budget.

This year, the Joint Office of Homeless Services budget will be $262 million, which means the county chair controls perhaps the largest pot of discretionary funding in the state.

But after six years of increasing budgets, which will continue to balloon because of the 10-year, $2.5 billion Metro homeless services measure, this year’s point-in-time count of homeless residents found 5,228 people. That’s a jump of 30% since the last count.

Amid such disappointing results, the Joint Office and its overseer, County Chair Deborah Kafoury, have refused to hear criticism.

The office has denied County Auditor Jennifer McGuirk access to data; acknowledged inflating its own success by, for example, overstating the number of permanent housing placements it’s made by as much as 20%; and recently had to claw back a half-million dollars it was overbilled by a homeless village operator that the county helped establish.

Throughout, Vega Pederson has remained Kafoury’s loyal lieutenant. Indeed, the pair joined forces to oppose an effort by the auditor to enshrine an ombudsperson in the county charter. It’s hard to view such opposition as anything but resistance to having their work scrutinized.

By contrast, Meieran has been a thorn in Kafoury’s side, constantly pushing for more data and greater transparency from the Joint Office.

A 58-year-old emergency room physician, Meieran also has a law degree. Her 20 years in the ER lend her expertise relevant to core county functions—public and mental health, addiction treatment, and homeless services. She has regularly pleaded with her colleagues at the county to treat conditions on Portland’s streets as a humanitarian crisis, not a situation that can be tolerated while the city awaits more housing.

To be sure, aspects of Meieran’s temperament give us pause. Since winning election in 2016, she’s experienced constant staff turnover. She struggles at times to keep her emotions in check and does not boast a tangible accomplishment of the magnitude of Preschool for All. The recent allegation by a labor union supporting Vega Pederson that Meieran threatened retaliation for not getting the union’s endorsement feels like a cynical political attack—but it also demonstrates the kind of poor judgment that, if it becomes a pattern, could sabotage Meieran’s chances to make change.

Yet we are persuaded she is the candidate most determined to bring change about. She has been crystal clear about the lack of rigor and urgency at the Joint Office. Early in her county tenure, she was a moving force behind the creation of the Unity Center for Behavioral Health, a psychiatric emergency clinic in inner Northeast Portland. Along with Multnomah County Mental Health Court Presiding Judge Nan Waller and others, Meieran has helped advance a successor to the Central City Concern sobering center that closed in 2019, leaving people suffering acute meth or alcohol intoxication with nowhere to go. Her contention: A relatively small number of frequent flyers are chewing up vast resources from the city’s police and fire bureaus and hospital emergency rooms.

At the intersection of mental health, substance abuse treatment, and law enforcement, Meieran has established a high level of credibility. She is a decisive, data-driven leader uncomfortable with the cozy relationship between county officials and their nonprofit service providers.

On her website, Meieran has concisely laid out the choice voters face: “My opponent has supported the current Chair on all issues,” she writes. “If you want to continue on the current path, hear the same talking points for the next four years, and see the same results, then you should vote for her.”

We don’t want that. Vote for Meieran.

On the menu for Meieran’s last meal: An “everything” pizza.

Correction: This endorsement initially conflated the number of unsheltered residents in the 2022 count with the total number of homeless residents. WW regrets the error.

See WW’s General Election 2022 Endorsements Here!

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