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Hitting her stride

Multnomah County Commissioner Diane McKeel is off and running as East County's voice on the five-member board


by: OUTLOOK PHOTO: JIM CLARK - Now in her second-four year term, East Multnomah County resident Diane McKeel is hitting her stride as a county commissioner by tackling issues ranging from helping military veterans to battling sex trafficking of children.Diane McKeel is a hard woman to keep up with.

As the District 4 representative on the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners, she prefers to walk — very briskly — to meetings in downtown Portland or other events near her office in the Multnomah County Building on Grand Avenue in inner Southeast Portland.

Saves time, gas and money for parking, she said.

Plus it’s good for her health.

She truly walks her talk, leading three-mile power walks along the Willamette River every Wednesday during her lunch hour.

Even her three full-time staffers, who are half her age, get left in the dust.

Since winning a hard-fought election and taking office in 2009, McKeel has steered consensus on building a new East County Courthouse in Rockwood (it opened last year after 45 years of go-nowhere-political-stalling/backbiting), oversaw the opening of the Troutdale library in 2010 (a project 12 years in the making) and was a driving force behind a major study on how to better connect Interstate 84 with Highway 26 (solution: build out the existing arterials, eliminating the need for a ‘Mount Hood Highway’).

She is clearly doing something right.by: OUTLOOK PHOTO: MARA STINE - Commissioner Diane McKeel has become known among her peers on the board of commissioners as a champion for county staff. Here she congratulates Jeanne Hass, 88, of Southeast Portland, who has worked as a temporary elections division employee, for 33 years, at a party held in their honor.

In 2012, McKeel ran unopposed for re-election and is in the first-year of her second term, which ends Dec. 31, 2016. This four-year term will be her last because commissioners are limited to two terms.

During her first term, McKeel established herself as a thoughtful, thorough, energetic, highly visible champion for the large swath of Multnomah County that lies east of Portland, said County Commissioner Deborah Kafoury, whose District 1 is on the opposite side of the county.

Although Chairman Jeff Cogen represents all of Multnomah County, the other four commissioners each serve a specific district. The largest, District 4, is the one McKeel represents. It encompasses the chunk of land from 185th Avenue to the county’s eastern border with Hood River County, and from the Columbia River to the Clackamas County line.

Her district also includes Government Island, part of outer Portland east of 148th Avenue and south of Interstate-84, plus a small pocket that lies roughly east of Southeast 122nd Avenue and south of Powell Boulevard.

“She is very passionate about all things East County,” Kafoury said. “And that is really a needed voice up here on the commission.”

While the other districts lie within the city of Portland, McKeel’s district also includes Gresham, Troutdale, Fairview, Wood Village, Corbett and the Columbia River Gorge.

This connection to smaller communities with strikingly different identities from Portland’s makes her district unique.

“I think she’s an effective voice for East County concerns,” Kafoury said. “She asks good questions about how does this affect East County.”

McKeel also serves as a reminder to the other commissioners that “there is part of Multnomah County outside of the city of Portland,” Kafoury said. “She does it in a very gentle, but firm way.”

There’s no defensiveness, feather-ruffling or making people uncomfortable in McKeel’s approach, Kafoury added.

That’s a remarkable achievement considering such a lopsided dynamic, if not handled well, can become a hotbed of resentment — like when former District 4 Commissioner Lonnie Roberts was shut out of a critical vote in 2004 on whether to legalize gay marriage.

And this is not to say that the current board doesn’t have its own issues.

Last month, a media bombshell sent the commission reeling: Chairman Jeff Cogen admitted to having an extramarital affair with a county employee, who has since resigned.

McKeel and the other remaining commissioners called for Cogen’s resignation from his $140,000-a-year job.

Cogan has refused to resign, but the affair is the focus of an investigation by the state Attorney General’s office on whether he misspent public money or abused his office to pursue the affair.

McKeel won’t discuss the controversy, citing the investigation into whether Cogen misused his office.

“We’ll find out,” she said. “For me, it’s about just doing the business of the county. The work goes on. We’ll get past it. I think it is important to know that our work goes on.”

No day is ever the same

There is no typical day-in-the-life of a county commissioner.

Sure, there are board meetings every Thursday morning, but that only scratches the surface.

Beyond those meetings is a steady onslaught of topics requiring attention and expertise — for example, the finer details about construction of the Sellwood Bridge. On top of that are commitments to community events in far flung East Multnomah County.

The job keeps McKeel on her toes, to say the least.

She stayed up late Tuesday, Aug. 6, attending National Night Out events in two starkly different parts of her district, urban Rockwood in Gresham and the pastoral community of Corbett in unincorporated Multnomah County.by: OUTLOOK PHOTO: JIM CLARK - A long-time advocate of local businesses in the small towns that make up East Multnomah County, Commissioner Diane McKeel meets with her Chief of Staff Eric Zimmerman at Celebrate Me Home in downtown Troutdale to go over her schedule while fueling up on coffee.

After resting up at her home along the Sandy River, by 8:30 a.m. Wednesday, Aug. 7, she was sipping coffee at Troutdale’s Celebrate Me Home while outlining her day with Chief of Staff Eric Zimmerman.

Next up, a meeting with the Corbett Safety Action Team.

It’s a chance every month to circle up with people and agencies doing business in and around Corbett: State and county transportation staff, Forest Service representatives, officials from State Parks and State Police, the Multnomah County Health Department, sheriff’s office, district attorney’s office, emergency management and Corbett’s fire chief.

Local residents and community groups also are welcome. For example, the meeting McKeel attended included members of the local historical society and the Columbia River Gorge Visitors Association.

If McKeel can’t make it to the monthly meeting, a member of her staff always does.

Her background in tourism and economic development sets her apart from the other commissioners. Since taking office, she has led an effort resulting in a major study on how to better link I-84 and Highway 26. The East Metro Connections Plan is now the roadmap on how to move forward on transportation projects “and that’s a huge economic driver,” McKeel said.

Instead of different jurisdictions arguing about where a future highway could be routed, energy is now directed to securing funding for those transportation projects. “And we’re in a good position to get that funding because we have this plan,” McKeel said.

When McKeel took office, Multnomah County created a Business Advisory Council to address business issues. She’s now partnering with local chambers of commerce to boost bike-oriented tourism in hopes of capitalizing on the historic highway’s scenic beauty and popularity among cyclists. She’d especially love to promote a bike route from Troutdale to Cascade Locks.

McKeel has become more than a little obsessed with STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — as an educational instrument and job training tool and is working to bring it from the westside to the eastside.

Her background also has allowed McKeel to make a name for herself as the go-to commissioner for issues ranging from helping military veterans to combating commercial sexual exploitation of children.

With her oldest son in the military and having served multiple deployments, veterans are near and dear to her heart. Also, roughly 10 percent of Multnomah County employees are veterans or active-duty military. That’s about 400 employees.

McKeel created a Multnomah County Veteran’s and Military Task Force three years ago to streamline efforts and create a collaboration between county departments and local partners helping veterans access benefits, such as mental health and medical health care, education, housing and job placement.

The task force served as the model for the Association of Oregon Counties’ veterans services subcommittee that McKeel heads as chairwoman. Also, McKeel was instrumental in creating a veterans and military service subcommittee through the National Association of Counties.

McKeel has also been on the frontline in the battle against commercial sexual exploitation of children since even before she became a county commissioner. During a 12-week citizen’s academy through the sheriff’s office, she met Deputy Keith Bickford, who explained that children and young adults are sexually trafficked in the local area.

“I was just shocked,” McKeel recalled. “I though it was an international issue, not a domestic one.”

Instead of dealing drugs, gangs are increasingly turning to prostitution as a revenue source. And as gang activities move farther east, police are finding more prostitution and child-sex-trafficking hot spots in Gresham and East Multnomah County.

As a commissioner, McKeel has advocated for a collaborative approach to solving this problem — everything from creating a team of prosecutors who specialize in prosecuting pimps and traffickers, to securing funding to shelter victims during the criminal justice process, to working with the governor and legislators in 2011 to pass multiple sex trafficking bills during the session.

Most recently, a study conducted by Portland State University at the urging of U.S. Attorney Amanda Marshall showed that 60 percent of local victims are in junior high school or younger when recruited or coerced into prostitution.

“These are children,” McKeel said.

After the Corbett meeting, McKeel drove to her Portland office, changed into exercise gear and met a handful of county staffers for a weekly lunch-hour walk. It’s an attempt to improve staff health and morale, and McKeel leads by example.

They crossed the Hawthorne Bridge, walked along the waterfront, then crossed the Willamette River again to walk along the Eastbank Esplanade as they headed back to the office.by: OUTLOOK PHOTO: MARA STINE - During her weekly three-mile walk along the Willamette River, Commissioner Diane McKeel runs into U.S. Attorney Amanda Marshall, who she worked with to coordinate a headline-making study - released two days earlier - that documented hundreds of children being trafficked for sex in Portland.

McKeel is a fast walker and before long, her staff — lagging behind — noticed her running into and hugging a blond woman.

It was U.S. Attorney Amanda Marshall, who McKeel has worked closely with on the issue of sex trafficking, out for a lunch-hour run.

“She’s always running into someone,” quipped staffer Tara Bowen-Biggs.

After talking shop and returning to their respective offices on opposite sides of the river, McKeel found herself walking once again, this time to the county’s elections division to a party in honor of a small army of temporary employees who work during election seasons.

In the less-than-glamourous basement venue, as elections workers ate cake and drank punch, McKeel thanked them for enduring years of wage freezes.

“Your work here matters,” she said.

McKeel is known on the commission as a champion for Multnomah County employees.

“She’s very good at giving credit where credit is due,” Kafoury said.

As for McKeel, she said she’s just thrilled to be a county employee herself and to have the privilege of representing East Multnomah County and outer Portland.

“I so enjoy the district that I represent,” McKeel said. “It’s an opportunity that we have to make a difference.”

Things to know about Commissioner McKeel

Name: Diane McKeel

Age: 66

Title: Multnomah County Commissioner, District 4

Family: Husband of 42 years, Mike; sons Geoff, 39, and Ryan, 37; daughter Amanda, 34; grandson Kieran; granddaughter due in December.

Experience: Retired dental hygienist; 10 years as executive director of the West Columbia Gorge Chamber of Commerce; volunteer with the Mt. Hood Jazz Festival and Mt. Hood Community College Foundation Board; adult basic eduction teacher at Mt. Hood Community College.

Fun facts: There were only 51 students in her graduating class at Yamhill Carlton High School in 1964. She earned a bachelor’s degree in health education from the University of Oregon in 1968, then a year later met her future husband at the University of Oregon Dental School. She was studying to become a dental hygienist and he was studying to become a dentist. He is still a dentist in downtown Gresham.




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