Peace Corps shapes new Department of Community Services ombudsman's outlook on helping others

March 11, 2014

Nearly 7,000 miles from his current job in Multnomah County, Michael Grimmett learned a lesson nearly three decades ago in Sierra Leone that guides his career and life to this day.

Grimmett, the Multnomah County Department of Community Services’ new ombudsman, was a Peace Corps volunteer in the west African nation in the mid-1980s trying to persuade an older farmer to try a new growing method for rice.

The subsistence farmer politely told Grimmett that he appreciated the help but that if the new method didn’t work, he had no way to feed his children for the next year.

Grimmett recalls persuading the farmer to try the new method and that the method ended up improving the crop. But Grimmett also came away realizing something else -- the merits of always considering another person’s perspective.

“It changed my attitude about working with people,’’ he says. “It’s more about how you interact with people, being respectful and working with them.”

All those qualities will serve Grimmett well in his new role as ombudsman for the Department of Community Services. The department created the office last fall to independently investigate and seek resolution of any constituent complaints alleging the department acted in a mistaken, unfair, or arbitrary manner.

The ombudsman provides informal assistance for complaints concerning the department's Divisions: Animal Services, Elections, Land Use and Transportation Planning, Road Services, Bridges and Survey. The ombudsman is also available to help with any complaints about the director's office.

“It’s an opportunity to see how we provide our services as a local government,” Grimmett says, “and to learn if there are problems, and are we doing a good job with problem-solving.”

Community Services Director Kim Peoples says Grimmett is a great fit for the new position because an ombudsman “requires traits of compassion, fairness and a penchant for wanting to help out and solve the problem.”

“Michael’s very moral fabric is concerned about the fairness of the status quo in regards to how the individual is treated,” Peoples says, “which translates into his passion for questioning process to ensure fairness in how services are delivered to the community.”

Grimmett is not only a long way from his three-year Peace Corps stint in Sierra Leone. He also is a long way from the rural north Alabama woods where he grew as the middle of three children, on a 20-acre property growing corn, butter beans, tomatoes and okra.

“It instilled in you a sense of doing well with what you have,” he says in a soft-spoken accent that reflects his Southern upbringing.

Grimmett’s interests ran toward band and the trombone, leading him to get his bachelor’s degree in music education from the University of North Alabama in 1982.

Always curious about Africa, after graduating from college, Grimmett applied to volunteer there for the Peace Corps.

He describes the Peace Corps call offering him a spot as an agricultural agent in Sierra Leone as a “huge growth opportunity” because he had never even been out of the United States.

Grimmett realized quickly he was far from home, eight hours away from the Sierra Leone capital of Freetown in a region of the country that lacked electricity, potable water or adequate crop fertilizer, and whose residents suffered from malaria, dysentery and cholera.

He remembers riding his Peace Corps-assigned motorcycle, the only motorcycle in the village when he came across two adult chimpanzees on the roadside, both of which were five feet tall.

“That was my ‘aha’ moment,’ he recalls with a laugh.

After volunteering in Sierra Leone, Grimmett continued working for the Peace Corps but in Washington, D.C. in the agency’s Africa division. He returned to Africa in 1993 with the Peace Corps, working in Lesotho as the Peace Corps’ associate director for rural development and environment in that south African nation.

He ended up in Portland after visiting friends from various stops who settled in the area. Grimmett began his career in Multnomah County working as a temporary receptionist and office assistant in the county’s HIV services office. He quickly earned his way up to be a program development specialist for the county’s HIV Services Planning Council from 2002 to 2004.

From 2004 to 2013, he started the county’s land-use code compliance program and was the program lead worker the past six years.

“I didn’t really know anything about land use,” he says now. “But I did know how to talk with people.”

He expects that conversational skill – learned so long ago in Sierra Leone and honed throughout his career with the Peace Corps and in Multnomah County -- will help him now as the neutral complaint investigation resource for the Department of Community Services’ constituents.

His role is as a final recourse at the department level to conduct an independent, impartial investigation of administrative acts by the Department of Community Services. Based upon the results of those investigations, he can recommend process or policy changes.

“I’ll be providing an independent, neutral look at complaints, and helping the department to look at its policy and procedures with an eye on equity assessments,” Grimmett says. “I am hopeful we can make this worth the county’s while.”

To learn more, visit the Office of the Ombudsman web page.