Oregon City commissioners hope to keep seats after election
At the request of elected officials passing along concerns of constituents, Oregon City installed a "no outlet" sign on Promontory Avenue and temporary safety fencing around the flooded playground in Chapin Park.
Such seemingly small issues are part of what have motivated two very different candidates, Denyse McGriff and Frank O'Donnell, to seek to keep their seats on the Oregon City Commission.
"That's one of the reasons I do this job, and it's the little things," O'Donnell said of his request to fence a play structure's surrounding lake that had become an "attractive nuisance." City staff had already solicited bids to install additional drainage in this area.
"It's not always going to work this way, but it is satisfying when it happens," McGriff said of helping give a resident of Promontory Avenue some additional relief from wayward traffic. O'Donnell had been among the commissioners who in 2019 approved bollards to block "troublemakers" from parking at the top of Waterboard Park, and McGriff who later joined the commission worked with neighbors to get signage installed.
On Wednesday morning, June 3, the first possible day, McGriff and O'Donnell both filed paperwork to appear on the November ballot, and Aug. 25 is the deadline for other candidates to file. The incumbents are not running as a slate, saying they respect each other's sometimes diverging views and each plan to run on their own merits.
McGriff and O'Donnell both have an eye on parks, however, and O'Donnell said one of his proudest achievements during his term on the commission was helping facilitate the pending relocation of the public-works department to the former General Distributing warehouse, which could free up an area near Waterboard Park for recreational uses. Both commissioners voted last month to bring back in July the issue of designating the public-works yard as part of Waterboard Park.
McGriff and O'Donnell have both advocated for the creation of an ordinance for the proper care and preservation of trees on all public property, expanding the protections for larger trees outside of just city-owned land, to land owned by public entities like ODOT, the school district, the county, etc. This reform came after a series of failures by city staff that led to the removal of a healthy walnut tree from city property in 2019.
McGriff and O'Donnell disagree about whether to begin a process for deciding whether to extend protections for trees on private property. O'Donnell advocates that city stay out of regulating tree removal on privately owned land, while McGriff would like the city to sponsor a poll on the issue or find other ways to obtain public input.
"Our surrounding jurisdictions do it, so I don't see any reason why we shouldn't at least investigate the idea of regulating trees on private properties," McGriff said. "I'm not sure how people feel about the protection of trees on private properties, and we don't know if we don't ask."
O'Donnell and McGriff also have different viewpoints on financial issues. They don't see eye to eye on McGriff's goal for the city to prioritize restoring the Buena Vista Club House, with O'Donnell saying that city funding shouldn't go to the property.
Although they disagree about getting more public input on the tree issue, McGriff and O'Donnell collaborated to create a policy allowing for public comments at City Commission work sessions.
"When I was appointed, my only agenda really was to expand the opportunity for people to participate," McGriff said.
O'Donnell agrees that the COVID-19 crisis has made public involvement much more difficult, so it's up to public officials to seek input whenever possible.
"We've encouraged people with information of value during a work session to come forward, and that's something I'm pleased with," O'Donnell said.
O'Donnell cited the city's various reversals on annexation policy as a good example of why quality information is so vital for policymakers. Prior to the tide-turning 2018 election in Oregon City, he was the only commissioner to vote against annexation applications based on the "home rule" provision of the Oregon Constitution. However, he wished that he had known it was an option to stop accepting most land into the city pending an appeals-court decision.
"I held the city attorney's feet to the fire on that one," he said. "The quality of the decisions that the commission can make is only as good as the information we're given."
McGriff and O'Donnell recently objected with the two other commissioners when Mayor Dan Holladay had been planning an announcement to open Oregon City businesses early, in defiance of state orders to slow the spread of COVID-19. Holladay received a warning letter from the state's attorney general, and city commissioners voted April 26 to affirm the governor's order.
"I do believe in respecting the opinion of others and allowing them to voice their opinions, but I also believe in public health measures," O'Donnell said.
Most recently, McGriff and O'Donnell both advocated successfully to include sole proprietors in Oregon City's program to provide debt relief to local business owners impacted by COVID-19.
Very different backgrounds led McGriff and O'Donnell to the Oregon City Commission.
McGriff worked for the public sector most of her career, while O'Donnell retired from the private sector. In 2016, O'Donnell ran against a city planner whose background was akin to McGriff's.
With her appointment by city commissioners in March 2019, McGriff became the first person of color to serve on the Oregon City Commission. She hopes to make history again by winning the November election.
McGriff is now retired from being a city planner in cities across the state, including Tillamook and Oregon City. She spent the final 17 years of her career as a senior project manager for the Portland Development Commission.
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.
O'Donnell won election to an open City Commission seat in 2016 as the outsider candidate, describing himself as a "reluctant" community activist. He petitioned for a rollback of water rates in the 1990s and organized neighbors upset over new city codes aimed at removing membrane structures from their private properties.
O'Donnell retired in 2019 as the regional engineering manager for a national company and says that he has more time than ever to focus on the needs of citizens.
"I often see how government is there where it shouldn't be and not there where it should be," O'Donnell said. "The citizens who have chosen their homes here and chosen to raise their families here are first and foremost for me."
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