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Elected officials vote 3-1 to appoint former city employee, Planning Commission chair

Denyse McGriff will become the first person of color to serve on the Oregon City Commission with her appointment March 6.

Denyse McGriffMcGriff, who will be sworn into office March 20, was among nine applicants for the position that Nancy Ide vacated Jan. 18. Retired in 2013, McGriff spent the final 17 years of her career as a senior project manager for the Portland Development Commission.

McGriff may have also been the first person of color to serve as an employee of the city when she took a job as an Oregon City principal planner in 1988, which was the same year that she and her husband moved to the first city incorporated west of the Rockies in 1844.

"Because of my employment with the city we broke a little ground there, and this is another step in getting our community to be seen how it should be seen," McGriff said. "Becoming a city commissioner is an honor, and I take the responsibility very seriously. It's about communicating, being honest with people and hiding nothing."

Oregon City Commissioner Rachel Lyles Smith encouraged more women to run for City Commission in 2020 and apply to the city's advisory boards and commissions. She said McGriff stood out from the other applicants as having lived in the city the longest, all the while serving on various key city advisory committees.

"I voted for the person most qualified, experienced, professional and ready to step into the position," Lyles Smith said.

Oregon City commissioners voted 3-1 for McGriff by secret ballot, handing in their top choice for the appointment on slips of paper to the city recorder. Following the announcement, all three of the city commissioners who voted for McGriff described why they had voted, but Mayor Dan Holladay did not speak about his choice during the public meeting.

As previously reported, McGriff has chaired Oregon City's Planning Commission and McLoughlin Neighborhood Association, and was a member of the Library Building Committee and a community advisory group providing input on the McLoughlin-Canemah Trail. In those capacities, she has become well versed in managing controversial meetings, from neighborhood-membership votes to appeal city decisions to land-use planning on the Willamette Falls Legacy Project.

Commissioner Frank O'Donnell said that McGriff's education and experience made her stand out among the nine applicants, along with other factors.

"She was incredibly well-spoken, and in addition to that, as one who observes and values highly the input of the Planning Commission — I have watched many a meeting — and I think it's important for a public official to be welcoming and include diverse and sometimes opposing opinions," O'Donnell said.

McGriff cited recent Metro reports showing that the Portland region still has a long ways to go in overcoming racial disparities, as the area is expected to be majority communities of color by 2045.

"We're still getting there in terms of Oregon, but onward and upward," she said. "I sincerely feel that Oregon City has given me a great deal personally and professionally, and this is another way for me to give back and show my appreciation."

McGriff is already accustomed to getting stopped by citizens on the street or in local grocery stores to talk about Oregon City issues. She expects the frequency of that occurrence to increase and promises also to make herself available by her personal phone and email listed on the city's website.

"I would say to my fellow residents of Oregon City I am going to do the best that I can for them," McGriff said. "I am going to get a lot of help from the city staff, elected officials and also the community at large."

As a school teacher, City Commissioner Rocky Smith related with McGriff, saying he often spends more than two hours when he thought he was just going to stop by a local store for an item or two. Smith said that he was proud to be sitting on the most diverse City Commission in Oregon City history with someone who shares newly elected city officials' drive to preserve its historic character amid growth pressure.

"She's the right one in terms of where we're going as a city," Smith said. "For me what set Denyse out was just a full knowledge of city — questions were asked in depth that she could respond to, really in greater depth than anyone else — and I feel like a real personal passion for it."

If McGriff wishes to serve past the first commission meeting in January 2021, she will have to run for and win an election in November 2020. She said that she's not yet sure whether she will file for that election in the summer of 2020.

"One step at a time; there's a lot of work ahead," she said.

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