A candidate running for the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners is defending lucrative contracts awarded to her husband by a community organization they both oversee. 

Jessie Burke, owner of the Society Hotel in downtown Portland, and previously Posies Café in North Portland, is a Multnomah County Commissioner candidate, as well as the board chair of the Old Town Community Association (OTCA). Her husband, Jonathan Cohen, serves as the treasurer for OTCA’s board.

Last February, the OTCA board voted to award several project management contracts to Cohen and his property development company, Equity Development Labs, to oversee more than $1.2 million in Old Town public improvement projects. Burke is a co-founder of Equity Development Labs, and is registered as a member on state business filings. 

Cohen was chosen to oversee and hire contractors for the restoration of the Chinatown Gate, the installation of decorative lanterns and lights, a road repair project, and early construction phases of a forthcoming Steel Bridge skatepark. 

In addition to managing the public improvement projects, Cohen’s company was also tapped to disburse $500,000 in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds on behalf of OTCA. The federal ARPA funds were granted to OTCA by the city, and were earmarked for security and improvement projects around Old Town. The money was doled out to local businesses and property owners in the form of grants for security gates, security glass on storefronts, and resin tree wells to discourage littering and prevent erosion. Cohen was hired by the board he sits on to handle the grant applications and distribution of funds to each business. 

Recruitment for each of the project management gigs wasn't widely publicized. Aside from the job search site Indeed, the only other solicitation notices appeared on OTCA’s own website and newsletter. The board received just two bids, one of which was from Cohen. He was later chosen to oversee each project. For his services, Cohen was paid somewhere between $43,000 to nearly $52,000, based on advertised project scopes and payment scales.

Whether the community association should’ve awarded monetary contracts to one of its own board members is raising ethics concerns. 

When asked whether the arrangement presents a conflict of interest, Burke says Cohen didn’t participate in the board’s decision to award him the grant management contracts. Neither did she.

“Our board voted to acknowledge the conflict,” Burke told the Mercury. “[Vice chair] Scott Kerman facilitated the process and [my husband] Jonathan Cohen did not participate in the discussion or the vote. He left the meeting for the board to discuss freely. With only two applicants, and Jonathan being the only applicant with contracting and construction project management experience, Jonathan was awarded the contract.”

While it’s not against the law for a nonprofit organization to award contracts to one of its own board members, nonprofit legal experts warn that a perceived conflict of interest can “jeopardize the organization’s reputation and diminish public trust in the organization” writes Gene Takagi, an attorney with NEO Law Group, in a blog post about nonprofit law.

City Commissioner Mingus Mapps, whose office awarded OTCA the $500,000 in 2022, did not respond to a request for comment.

The Mercury contacted six Old Town businesses and organizations, some of which are OTCA members. While a few said they aren’t actively involved with OTCA and weren’t aware of the association’s recent projects, others declined to speak on the record, but registered concern over the contract arrangements. 

Kat Mahoney is the executive director of Sisters of the Road, one of several nonprofits serving Portland’s houseless community from Old Town. Mahoney says the way OTCA awarded the contracts sends up red flags.

“I would worry that that is going to be a conflict of interest and falls under self-dealing,” Mahoney says, but for Sisters of the Road, the concern is less about board votes, and more about board dynamics.

“I don't mind if you and your partner are going to be part of a neighborhood association, that’s not my concern,” Mahoney continues. “My concern is who is represented in decision making, who gets a seat at the table, and who’s not being represented.”

Old Town has been a hub of basic services and resources for Portland’s unhoused population for decades. But in recent years, some groups say they’re feeling the pressure of OTCA’s vision for Old Town, which feels increasingly business-oriented and less friendly to groups that neither encourage nor profit from tourism (such as Burke’s Society Hotel) or draw shoppers and diners to Old Town.

Staff at one nonprofit say the OTCA atmosphere feels less than welcoming. Others say they’ve found OTCA leadership to be “openly hostile” toward homeless service organizations. 

Ground Score Association, an organization that connects low-income and unhoused people with job opportunities doing urban gleaning, recycling, and waste management, says they haven’t found a warm reception at OTCA.

“Because many of our workers come from homelessness, we get the cold shoulder,”says Nic Boehm, operations manager at Ground Score. It’s one of the reasons Ground Score isn’t heavily involved in OTCA.

“Our interest is just in making sure we're a good neighbor and we’re in good communication,” Boehm says. 

Burke pushes back on the notion that OTCA isn’t friendly to service providers.

“My guess is this is less of an objective statement, and more of a personal sentiment,” Burke says.

She notes OTCA’s board includes Scott Kermen, who runs Blanchet House, and Mary-Rain O’Meara from Central City Concern—both longstanding organizations serving Portland’s poor and unhoused. OTCA also partners with other nonprofit providers.

“We have a working relationship with Union Gospel Mission, who splits the cost [with OTCA for] bus tickets for unhoused individuals who want to leave Portland,” Burke notes. “Portland Rescue Mission is one of our biggest supporters, City Team is looking to move to the neighborhood and we have a great working relationship.”

However, on at least two occasions, Burke and OTCA tried to prevent service organizations from staying or locating in Old Town. Records show Burke decried a plan for the Joint Office of Homeless Services to buy a building in Old Town for use as a shelter. The plan came not long after a temporary shelter–a converted former Greyhound bus station–closed after a few years of operation.

In an email to city and county leaders, Burke said Old Town is oversaturated with homeless organizations that threaten the livelihood of businesses and the neighborhood overall.

“This [Greyhound shelter] was always intended to be temporary, and it is not Old Town's responsibility to carry a disproportionate burden for the City and County in this crisis,” Burke wrote. 

She included a map of Old Town showing more than two dozen social service agencies within the neighborhood’s 68-square-block radius.

“This is absolutely untenable for us, and we have no way to ever create a healthy ecosystem of a neighborhood if the government is actively working against us,” Burke added, suggesting the city develop a neighborhood grading system based on each area’s mix of affordable housing, market rate housing, retail, office space, restaurants, and other criteria.

Burke’s letter got support from Commissioner Dan Ryan and his staff, as well as John Bishop, the president and CEO of Pendleton Woolen Mills.

“For many years Old Town has been a place for very low-income residents, often retired. I don’t advocate displacing them,” Bishop wrote to the city, echoing Burke’s concerns. “Adding a JOHS facility will do that. Pendleton’s employees feel unsafe in our neighborhood and they are not nearly as vulnerable as the longtime residents.”

Bishop said Pendleton would lose employees at its Old Town offices if the JOHS shelter went in, threatening, “disagreeable alternatives” the company would have to consider.

On another occasion, Mahoney says Sisters of the Road (SOR) also experienced pushback from Burke and other local groups when she was negotiating the purchase of the House of Louie building in Old Town as new headquarters for the nonprofit.

Mahoney and her staff were told Chinese cultural groups were interested in the purchase, in an ongoing effort to “buy back” Chinatown property and maintain its cultural identity.

“Frankly, many cultural communities, including the Chinese community, were disheartened that SOR purchased the building, even though SOR was informed that the Chinese community is actively trying to buy back Chinatown property,” Neil Lee, president of the Oregon Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, wrote in an email to Mahoney and others. 

Sisters of the Road staff told Lee and several others on the email thread that House of Louie sat empty for several years, with no other interested parties looking to buy it. 

“We hear your concerns about the gentrification of Chinatown and that House of Louie feels like yet another loss for the region's cultural identity. If we heard that there was an offer from a member of the community, we would not have made an offer on behalf of Sisters. However, the fact is, Sisters also has a long history in this region. We've been just two blocks away for over 40 years,” Mahoney and SOTR board members replied in the email. “We, too, want our neighborhood to thrive. However, we want to push back on the implication that houseless people and those of us who serve them cause instability. This narrative is rooted in stigma against poor people and a big mission of our organization is to make sure the unhoused community is treated with the same humanity and dignity given to the rest of society. “

OTCA plays a substantial role in Old Town, an area brimming with cultural history, but one that’s also been among Portland’s most distressed neighborhoods. Since 2021, the association has received funding from the city to oversee a Chinatown gate repair project, a street lantern project, and is poised to take a key role in the development of the Steel Bridge Skatepark.

Since opening the Society Hotel in 2015, Burke has been an advocate for reinvigorating Old Town with new businesses, market-rate housing, and cultural landmarks. After the pandemic ravaged local businesses and left a lasting impact on downtown Portland, Burke became vocal about the city’s need for more immediate action to address homelessness, crime, and squalid conditions that have plagued some pockets of downtown–particularly Old Town.

Through her leadership position at OTCA and role as a hotel owner, she’s played an outsized role in Old Town’s transformation.

The sentiment among some Old Town nonprofits is that Burke and OTCA want to see fewer unhoused people and service organizations in Old Town, and more shopping, tourism, and dining, which would benefit the Society Hotel and other businesses.

“People who are poor have been in this neighborhood for a long time, and rather than trying to erase them, people should be lifting up their knowledge,” says Kaia Sand, executive director of Street Roots, a nonprofit newspaper sold directly to readers by unhoused Portlanders.

Burke says she’s just trying to strike a balance in the neighborhood. 

“While Old Town has housed a concentration of social service agencies for the last few decades, it was originally Portland's downtown, and later Japantown, and eventually included New Chinatown,” Burke notes. “It remains Portland's Japantown and New Chinatown, and so while some social service agencies want the community to accept that Old Town is just for social services, what I have asked of everyone is that we aspire to be a balanced community where everyone can serve their customers and community.”

Burke’s bid for county office has largely been built on her criticism of Multnomah County’s current governance, particularly around homelessness, addiction services, and housing. She advocates for more accountability for money spent on services, and a “dramatic increase” in available homeless shelters, despite her recent opposition to new shelters in Old Town.

This story has been corrected to note that Burke no longer owns Posies Café. Her ownership tenure ended in 2020.