Turning Conflict Into Equity

by Carolyn Shea

Michael Mills '77, the Ombudsman for the City of Portland, Ore., got an early, David-and-Goliath-style lesson in how empowered citizens can change the system for the better.

michael millsThirty-five years ago, he was among an idealistic and enterprising team of Greeners who rallied around a small, tight-knit Columbia Gorge community facing one of America's most unyielding forces: The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

As a freshman, Mills enrolled in a program co-taught by faculty member Russ Fox, whose students participated in a number of urban planning projects around the region. For his second-quarter ethnographic study, Mills chose to examine North Bonneville, Wash., some 150 miles south of the Olympia campus, where several students were already absorbed in research and planning activities. This town, on the north bank of the Columbia River, was overshadowed by its impending demolition to make way for an additional powerhouse at the Bonneville Dam, a major regional source of hydroelectric power. What he found there captured his attention (and the national media's, too) for years to come. Armed with the in-depth research and assistance provided by Evergreen's students, the emboldened townspeople refused to simply sell their land and scatter. Instead, they created a comprehensive plan for their next community, and challenged the Corps to turn over the land they wanted downriver and help them carry out their relocation plans.

Mills became a planning intern for the town. He ended up spending most of his remaining undergraduate days in North Bonneville, completing independent contracts and internships before returning to campus for his final quarter.

Evergreen's successful collaboration with North Bonneville contributed to the enactment of groundbreaking federal legislation. Referred to as the "McCormack legislation," the 1974 law obligated the Corps to pay for the town's relocation, and granted community control over the planning. With the passage of this measure, North Bonneville won an historic, precedent-setting decision that gave residents the right to move collectively, have a say in the design of their new town and preserve their community.

This hard-won victory left a deep impression on Mills. After finishing his degree (in community planning and development with an emphasis in cultural anthropology), he headed back to North Bonneville to start his new job as a town planner. "I stayed on and worked as a planner for several more years-until the relocation was essentially done," he says. Then, he was elected to the city council. Mills later took this experience to Anchorage, Alaska, where his consensus-building work on a challenging area-wide zoning issue positioned him for an appointment as the municipality's ombudsman, an impartial go-between for citizens to air complaints against city agencies and officials.

"The ombudsman provides another avenue for government accountability and the public interest," said Mills.

"You hear a complaint, come up with an independent review and make a judgment based on what's in the public's best interest. If your findings don't agree with the citizen's, then you try to explain why the relevant policy makes sense from a broader community standpoint."

However, if an investigation supports the complainant's case, there's a real opportunity for public-policy change to occur. The role of the ombudsman is to try to resolve conflicts in a fair and non-adversarial way, but proposing solutions or changes often runs the risk of ruffling feathers.

Mills borrows a quote from Sam Zagoria, former ombudsman for The Washington Post, "You can always tell who the ombudsman is-They're the ones eating by themselves."

Mills held his Anchorage office for more than eight years. In 1993, he was appointed the first ombudsman for the City of Portland, his hometown. On average, Mills' two-person office handles about 300 cases a year. "Sometimes we're the first resort," says Mills, "and sometimes we're the last resort."

Together he and the deputy ombudsman investigate public complaints and suggest improvements in code, policy and provision of city services. In a city of more than a half-million residents with 20 bureaus and agencies, this diligent duo has succeeded in getting building code violations dealt with more fairly, removed barriers to service access and pushed the government to institute reforms that prevent inequity and conflict from arising in the first place.

During his career, Mills has served twice as president of the United States Ombudsman Association. He has also served on the International Board of the Society of Professionals in Dispute Resolution, now the Association for Conflict Resolution.

One of his biggest challenges as a public sector ombudsman is "to be successful in making recommendations in a large bureaucracy and see them adopted." Another is "making sure we're available and known by a broader segment of the population," especially those who are disenfranchised or underrepresented, he says. "Evergreen gave me the path to understanding different cultures, being compassionate about people's situations and figuring out how to resolve conflicts in a more positive way."