Why I'm Running: Bringing change to Gresham

By Jenni Simonis of Gresham, Oregon. A long-time community activist and a 2008 candidate for the Gresham City Council. Learn more at VoteJenni.com.

Ever since moving to Gresham in 2000, I’ve been heavily involved in the community. Over the years I’ve helped fight the 182nd/Powell Wal-Mart Supercenter, campaigned for a levy for the fire department, canvassed for candidates, advocated for payday loan reform, served on the Rental Housing Inspection Program work group, rallied in Rockwood for public safety, and serve as a neighborhood association president.

In that time, I’ve had the opportunity to speak with thousands of residents all over the city on a variety of issues. And a topic that came up over and over again was how unrepresented people felt by the council. I heard this from middle income families, renters, people under the age of 45, and those living in the northern half of the city.

Currently, six of our seven council members live in the southern half of the city– five south of Powell, and four of them in the same neighborhood. Even if you’re not conscious of it, your awareness of the needs and issues of an area can be greatly affected by the area you’re in the most. As such, having almost the entire council living in one area can mean the needs and issues of other areas of town are overlooked. Some squeaky wheels may come forward, but more often than not they remain silent and unknown outside of the area.

But something that isn’t as well known is how the demographics in our city are changing. Our population has been increasing steadily, causing our city to cross the 100,000 mark earlier this year. What grew even faster was the number of persons ages 5-17 – an almost 40% increase from 2005 to 2006. At the same time, household sizes did not change, which means more households have school-aged children than they did just a few years ago. This trend doesn’t surprise me, as I’ve seen evidence of it here in the complex where I live. When we first moved in, we were surrounded by units occupied by twenty-somethings who were sharing apartments. Over the past two years we’ve watched as those residents moved out, only to be replaced by parents with school-aged kids.

More often than not, these families are also lower to middle income, living in either starter homes or apartment complexes. And they’re quickly becoming a considerable chunk of our city’s population. But as many point out, there’s no one on the council to represent them. To me, that is a huge issue, since they have some of the greatest need for representation on issues like more owner-occupied affordable housing, living wage jobs, and a safe community for their kids. As a renter, a member of a middle-income household, and the mother of a six year-old child, I deal with many of the same issues these residents do every day. And in dealing with these same issues every day, I have an entirely different perspective on them than someone who only hears about it second-hand or experiences it occasionally.

After watching as many of these issues still were not being addressed, I decided in late 2006 that I was going to move up to the next level and run for city council. There is only so much that can be done through participating in work groups and advocating to the council – at some point you have to become part of the group making the decisions. So when a vacancy came up last year, I immediately threw my name in for consideration, also making it known I intended to run for the position in 2008. I received rave reviews for my thorough knowledge and vast experience; however, the council felt it was better to appoint someone who had been on the council previously.

Since then I have stayed involved in the city – including reactivating my neighborhood association and participating in the process of hiring our new police chief. In August I officially filed to run for the council.

Many people ask me why I’m running this year – why couldn’t I wait two more years for an open seat instead of challenging a sitting councilor. My answer is simple – bringing change and a new voice to the council. While the council may be getting along and running smoothly, it isn’t representative of our entire city. We have a lot of needs and issues that are being overlooked. And in speaking with members of the council, it’s become obvious that it’s not a matter of purposefully ignoring issues – it’s just that they haven’t seen them.

By winning a seat on the council, I can bring a voice to the council that’s currently not being heard. In addition, I can bring new ideas and solutions to the table that can help change the direction our city is headed. Incomes in our town are dropping – down 15% for families and 12% for individuals – and crime is rising. We only have two private companies employing more than 1,000 people (Boeing and U.S. Bank’s Data Processing Center), and only six employing more than 500. The need for more living wage jobs in Gresham is an issue probably only second to crime.

We’ve been working hard to improve our environment and protect our natural resources, while at the same time nearly half our city’s households have limited access to recycling services. Our city is crisscrossed by creeks and streams that are important habitat for salmon, muskrats, deer, coyote, and other wildlife, but at the same time there is little incentive to limit the amount of polluted runoff from our yards and driveways entering those waterways. And as more and more residents have a need for public transportation, coverage is still limited and unusable for many common errands like grocery shopping.

I’m the first to admit that I don’t have experience on the council. I’ve attended meetings and I read the council packets, but I’ve never been on the council. All my experience is in working with the community, addressing their needs, etc. However, there are six other highly experienced members on the council – the other two council members up for re-election this year are unopposed. As such, it’s the perfect time to make a change and bring in a new voice who can serve as a voice from the community while at the same time be mentored by the current council.

With so many important races this year – from Obama to Merkley to state legislative seats – it’s been difficult to raise funds for local races. That means mailers, yard signs, etc. are out because their cost quickly runs into the thousands of dollars. As such, I’ve been concentrating heavily on being out in the community speaking with residents. But I can only reach so many people before Election Day. Your donation can help us to pay for flyers that we can use to hand out and leave at the door, for phone calls to voters, and ads in The Gresham Outlook.

My web site, www.votejenni.com, has more information on my positions, background, etc. Please feel free to leave any questions below, and I’ll try to answer them when I’m not out campaigning.

Thanks everyone, and be sure to vote your entire ballot! All of us at the bottom appreciate your vote.

Comments

  • Stan Vincent (unverified)
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    "Our city is crisscrossed by creeks and streams that are important habitat for salmon, muskrats, deer, coyote, and other wildlife, but at the same time there is little incentive to limit the amount of polluted runoff from our yards and driveways entering those waterways"

    So what do you propose be done?

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    Glad to see one of our most reliable commenters run a guest column about her public service. Cool!

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    Stan:

    Thanks for the question.

    There are a number of ways we can attack the problem. I've come up with a few ideas of some things we can do to help with the problem. But it's something that we need to discuss with those who are more of an expert on the topic than I am. We recently added a new city committee on natural resources, and this is a topic I'd definitely like to see go through that committee so that we can make sure we do everything we can to help with this problem.

    • Encouraging businesses with large parking lots, apartment complexes, etc. to put in gardens that help to filter the water before it goes into local streams and rivers. OMSI has such gardens in their parking lot.

    • Encouraging more community gardens, plants that need less water and chemicals, etc. in place of manicured lawns and landscaping.

    • Look at limits and guidelines on sprinkler use. Where I used to live in Texas, there were cities that had rules regarding how long and often automatic sprinklers could run. In some places homes were included, others it was businesses, churches, apartments, etc. Often times what happens is the automatic sprinklers run so long that the water ends up running down the driveway, across parking lots, etc., which picks up all the chemicals and washes it into our waterways.

    I'm sure there are a number of other solutions - these are just a few of them that immediately come to mind.

    How these things are encouraged is something we'd have to discuss. Would we look at tax incentives? Rewards for those who do it? Discounts on sewer bill? What has worked in other areas?

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    The people of Gresham would be so fortunate to have such an earnest, hardworking member on the city council.In all my interactions with Jenni, I have found her to be action oriented, people focused and an excellent listener.Jenni considers issues from multiple perspectives and seems to have a knack for building consensus. I have contacted all the folks I know that live in Gresham and told them they have a golden opportunity here. Go Jenni!

  • Ms Mel Harmon (unverified)
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    Glad to see this post, Jenni, and I'm glad you are running. You are correct when you state that we need the council to be more representative geographically of Gresham. Given the wide disparity in income, housing, and other factors within Gresham, I'd love to see Gresham adopt a rule that states that the council members MUST come from various areas of the city. This way all the concerns can be heard. You will be an excellent voice for North Gresham residents--and all of Gresham.

    I've already turned in my ballot, with a nice black circle by your name....good luck and thanks again for running!

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    Thanks Dena and Mel.

    Yea, going back to districts would definitely be a good idea. There is already some discussion about doing that. I think it's a good idea. Not only does it mean we get all areas of town represented, it also means we'll have a greater number of people coming forward to run.

    Right now a lot of really qualified people don't run because you have to campaign city-wide, which can get pretty expensive.

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    Go Jenni! Gresham is lucky to have such a thoughtful person running for council.

    Jenni is part of a growing wave of young, energetic leaders stepping up to the plate to help shape Oregon's future.

  • Linda Harmon (unverified)
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    Jenny, I am glad to hear that a concerned citizen is running in Gresham. I have been very disappointed with the Gresham government. I have lived in Gresham for over ten years. You rarely see any police in my neighborhood. A particular concern of mine is not having any recreation programs. There is less going on in Gresham than in Troutdale or Wood Village. You have to join an athletic club because there is no other choice. There is nothing for the children. I do not understand why Gresham, one of the largest cities in Oregon, cannot provide any recreational services. A few of the parks are good but others are not well maintained. Last June I went to the Kane park. The grass was a foot high in the play area. Do you know why this is and how things can improve? Thanks.

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    Linda:

    Thanks for the question. I completely understand what you mean.

    A big problem has been the city's budget. We bring in approximately $22 million in property taxes (42.4% of the general fund's budget). The rest of the city's funds come in from utility license fees, county business tax, etc. Together that gives us about $46.7 million to fund police, fire and emergency services, parks and rec, planning services, etc. With a population of more than 100,000 people, that's not enough.

    I did some comparisons of other cities around the state to see how much they spend. Cities that don't fund their fire and emergency services spend in the $525-560,000 range per 1,000 residents. Cities that offer full services are in the $900,000-1 million per 1,000 residents. Gresham spends about $467,000 per thousand residents.

    We're spending almost our entire budget on police, fire, and emergency services - around 85%. That leaves very little funding for anything else.

    In the near future, a way we can start to improve this is to expand our Adopt a Park program so that we can get as many of our parks covered as possible. I'm going to see if our neighborhood will cover Hall Park, for instance. The grass is taken care of since groups pay to use the park for soccer. However, things like the trail around the edges of the park badly needs to be maintained.

    But that will only help with getting our parks cleaned up - it doesn't add more playgrounds, more recreation services, etc.

    I was amazed when I moved here that there aren't any community based recreation services like a YMCA, Boys and Girls Club, etc. offering widespread recreation services. This is one way to get some activities in our city. Before moving here, I was on the board of the Alvin-Manvel YMCA, which was just starting. We realized the same need there and were working to raise funds for a recreation center.

    But we also need something more than that, and right now I don't see how we can fit it into the city's budget. And that's a problem, since we all know when you don't have anything for the kids to do, they are more likely to get into trouble.

    That is why a discussion has started lately about the possibility of creating a recreation district like other areas have done. This would help to expand parks and rec services since there would be a dedicated fund just for those services.

    Adding services like this is a step forward that we have to support if we're ever going to fully grow to become the city that our population suggests we already have become.

  • Bill R. (unverified)
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    You'll be a great City Councilperson, Jenni! Keep on, keeping on... 22 years ago I lived in Gresham, and my home office was located in Gresham until I retired, three years ago. Gresham needs some good planning and decision making.

  • Realist (unverified)
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    Classic community organizer who hates the engine of America....small business and the people they employee. Typical that you would go to the government to get your next job since you like putting everyone in the private sector out of business.

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    Realist:

    First of all, city council positions in Gresham are volunteer. They take up about as much time as a full-time job, and there's no pay. There are no stipends, no salary, no nothing.

    Second, I love small businesses. My father and my mother each owned a small business. And this year I've been working on starting my own small business.

    Small businesses are important to the community - they're often the ones who donate the most time, energy, and money to the community. They often pay the best wages and treat their employees well. A thriving community needs a good mix of small businesses and large employers in order to ensure there are enough living wage jobs to support the city's population.

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    Also...

    Apparently there is a rumor going around town that I've only lived in Gresham for a year or two. This stems from an incorrect reading of the voter file, which shows the date I last registered (an address change), not the date I first registered.

    My husband and I moved to Gresham almost eight and a half years ago. In late 2006, we moved across town.

    I've heard from a few people now that this rumor is going around town, and I wanted to correct the misunderstanding.

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    I'm always amused by the number of people who think that public service is a cushy gig.

    Useful trivia: There are only two - TWO! - full-time salaried mayors in all of Oregon: The mayor of Portland and the mayor of Beaverton. The rest are all volunteers (though I suspect there may be some small stipends here and there.)

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    Jenni,

    Good luck in the race. I think you would be a wonderful representative in Gresham. And, we could hook up at the League of Oregon Cities conference next year. I wish you the best. The one thing I learned my first year on Council was not to take things personally. There are folks that you will make happy and the folks you don't are usually the ones that will always let you know.

  • rural resident (unverified)
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    Jenni:

    Over the years I’ve helped fight the 182nd/Powell Wal-Mart Supercenter

    What grew even faster was the number of persons ages 5-17 – an almost 40% increase from 2005 to 2006. At the same time, household sizes did not change, which means more households have school-aged children than they did just a few years ago.

    This fast-growing demographic represents one of Wal-Mart's key target market segments. Keeping them from having the opportunity to shop at Wal-Mart without incurring great inconvenience has the effect of reducing their standard of living.

    Do you have a plan for locating a Wal-Mart (which the eastern part of the county certainly needs and can support) somewhere else close by, or do you just think that it's OK for people to pay more for food and other household goods because Wal-Mart is generally evil?

    If it's the latter, have you been open with potential voters about the fact that your personal philosophical preferences are more important to you than their ability to make ends meet? If not, you'll probably want to hope that people whose resources are very limited don't catch on to the way your views and their standard of living intersect.

    I'm certainly not saying that Wal-Mart and other "big boxes" are model citizens. They aren't. However, I've always been kind of partial to freedom of choice, myself. People who dislike stores like Wal-Mart should shop somewhere else. Those who want -- or need -- to patronize them should also have the opportunity. As long as they're willing to pay their development fees and comply with reasonable codes, it's in the best interests of any area to let them in. Otherwise, those shopping dollars tend to leave the area, and the multiplier economic effects go with them.

  • Ms Mel Harmon (unverified)
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    Rural Resident,

    There is a Wal-Mart already in the area...a Super Wal-Mart only 5.76 miles away (10 minutes by car) on Sandy Blvd. We don't need a Wal-Mart, or any particular store, cloned every two miles (including Starbucks...sorry, caffeine junkies).

    For heavens sake, did you attend ANY of the meetings about this site? Any of the Council Meetings where the traffic impact was mentioned? This site was deemed inappropriate for ANY single large-box store. Wal-Mart got it's panties in a twist because they went out and bought the land PRIOR to checking out the site well enough and assumed the locals would just let them build whereever they chose. Wrong.

    If Wal-Mart truly wants to put another store in a couple miles from the existing store, there are plenty of places in Gresham they do so.

    If people want to shop at Wal-Mart, no ones stopping them--it's right down the road, less than a ten minute drive away. This is not a situation where some small town has been denied the right to shop at Wally World and has to drive an hour to find affordable goods...or even another Wally World.

    Jenni never said she opposed Wal-Mart, just the site. But even if she has an objection to Wal-Mart personally, I can tell you from my dealings with her that she will represent the people of Gresham and put THEIR interests above her own personal biases. She is smart, professional, compromising, and sees the big picture.

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    As Mel has already pointed out, there is already a Wal-Mart nearby in Wood Village. Opposing the development wasn't about denying people access to Wal-Mart (especially since that access is already there). It was about a development that was in no way a good fit for the location. It didn't even fit in with the property's zoning of community commercial, which is supposed to be pedestrian oriented.

    I can tell you from 22 years of living in an area saturated with Wal-Mart stores that having multiple stores in a small area is not a good idea. What they do is flood an area with stores and have the prices so low they can put a lot of smaller businesses out of business (back home they even drove out K-Mart and kept away Target). Once they're successful in that, they close stores and raise prices. And those buildings sit vacant... forever. There is something like six vacant Wal-Marts within a short drive from my parents' house.

    Also, contrary ti popular belief, Wal-Mart's prices are not that cheap. Try doing a cost comparison sometime between Wal-Mart and a store like Winco. You may find a few times that are cheaper at Wal-Mart, but you're going to find that overall you're going to spend more at Wal-Mart. On clothing and toys I find that they're typically the same as Target. As a wife and mother with a limited budget, it didn't take me too long to figure out it was cheaper to shop at Winco and Target than it was Wal-Mart. And at the same time I'm supporting businesses that treat their employees better, are good members of the community, etc.

    Also, there's more to development than meeting codes and paying development fees. There are also things like the development's effect on traffic, the environment, and on the local economy. And on every single one of those issues, adding a Wal-Mart to town was a bad choice. That's why the Wal-Mart store proposal received more comments and letters in opposition than the city has ever received on any other development.

    But if people disagree with me and want to shop at Wal-Mart, that's their choice. Passing their parking lot on numerous occasions, I know plenty of people do. And it's just a short trip from Gresham to Wood Village.

  • Nigel Nicholson (unverified)
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    I think you have a solid platform, for what that's worth.

    I live across the street, literally, from Gresham and am appalled by the "here Portland ends and Gresham begins" effect. I think you get to the heart of the matter by directly changing Gresham, but I'm a bit perplexed by Metro's lack of integration. I mean, if you have to change each border community in vivo to get uniformity, what good are they?

    Be that as it may, let me second the call for some progressive planning in Gresham. It is already one of Oregon's largest cities. I live 1 mile from my beloved cricket pitch, but I cannot go there directly, without fighting the traffic on Halsey, because the development in between was planned with no overall street plan to speak of. More and more folks won't distinguish; it will all reflect on Portland. Without the '80s agenda Portland wouldn't be what it is today and an infusion of that spirit is needed to help make Gresham the same.

    I vote more on intent than particulars, and while they may take a while to work out, I have no doubt that Jenni's platform is good medicine for Gresham.

    As I'm new to the area in the last year, though, I would love to hear your "picks" for the other Gresham spots. Hate to only know candidates from their campaign signs and abstracts in the voting guide!

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    The other two positions are unopposed.

    Shirley Craddick and Paul Warr-King are excellent council members and are two people I've looked to for advice on more than one occasion. Both are very active in the community and are regularly out meeting with and listening to Gresham residents.

    The best part is that they're both people who are more than willing to listen to ideas from other people and learn from what you tell them.

  • RW (unverified)
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    Jenni: I lived in Oklahoma, which is WalMart territory. In fact, given that the Tyson, JB Hunt and Walton families are interpenetrated, so to speak, the three state area of Arkansas, Oklahoma, Missouri are heavily impacted by the culture of these corporations.

    I can speak to the poor citizen/good citizen aspects of WalMart in a small town setting. While being the major employer in Tahlequah, OK, they were infamous for keeping nearly all of their staff just below the benefitted level. This included pitifully struggling single mothers, small families, all of the innocent victims that excite interest in everyone's hearts. It used to enrage me beyond reason as a social justice advocate/activist! And I could not understand, at first, why people were not in the streets!

    Hah.

    On the flipside, when my HIV test site needed items to offer for fundraisers, or sometimes to keep services going, as I charged nothing, and received no state funding to speak of, for politically-specific reasons -- WalMart gave willingly to support me, as did the local papers, radio, and other businesses. They were trenemendously frontline as contributors to events I ran to help people burned out of their slum apartments by fire, for domestic violence advocacy funding, field HIV testing...

    And yet, for me, the fact that the people I had to help for free because there was no way in hell they could ever pay for the services or travel to Tulsa to get them... well, it's WALMART who kept them just below the line of access to the fundamentals of life we all in theory expect a working person should be able to access!

    I understand that later there were tiers of medical coverage added. At costs that the half and just under three quarter time employees could not afford to use.

    <h2>WalMart, ultimately, was not a good corporate citizen. Likewise, their in-laws, the Hunts -- go on and underbid all trucking firms in the area, then, as soon as they garner a large share of the contracts, jack the rates up to where they were and higher. These bidding wars prove only to disrupt supply chain dynamics and foster uneasy relationships, nothing more. All a game. My ex worked for them when he was starting out. The hazing he endured for working for the scabrous Hunt was something to behold.</h2>
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