Seven long-time leaders of Portland's black community sent a stinging letter of rebuke last night to Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury.
The letter is a show of support for embattled Commissioner Loretta Smith, who was the subject of a county human resources investigation released on June 9.
"Our community has fought long and hard for African Americans—elected or not—to receive equal treatment under the law and we are outraged that did not occur under your leadership," says the letter, which was signed by former Sen. Avel Gordley, Tony Hopson, Lolenzo Poe, Dr. Leroy Haynes, Jr., Ron Herndon, Joyce Harris and Dr. T. Allen Bethel.
"This unseemly process surrounding unsubstantiated charges and allegations about Commissioner Smith, have been the worst sort of political and racist attack thinly veiled as a human resources investigation. Indeed, it is a modern day political lynching. We are not going to stand by while one of our best and brightest is maligned," the letter continues.
Kafoury could not immediately be reached for comment.
The county investigation followed letters of complaint from two former Smith staffers, both women of color: MeeSeon Kwon, who is Korean-American, and Saba Salaeem, who was born in Pakistan.
The women alleged that Smith misused county resources including staff time, was abusive and unprofessional and made discriminatory or harassing remarks.
Smith initially requested the investigation after the women complained. Then, in April, she filed a tort claim notice seeking to block release of the results. When the county released the results anyway, showing Smith likely bullied her staff and subjected them to racially-charged comments, she adamantly denied wrongdoing and said the results vindicated her.
"Today, after six long months, the county released a report—at great expense to the public—that found that wild claims filed against me were unsubstantiated," Smith said in a statement on June 9. "The public should never doubt that I let this misguided process distract me from doing the business of representing the most vulnerable in Multnomah County."
The supporters who wrote to Kafoury on Smith's behalf have many decades of leadership in Portland.
Gordly represented Portland in the Legislature for 17 years and was the first African American woman elected to the Oregon Senate. Hopson is the founder of Self Enhancement, Inc. Poe is a former Portland School Board member and chairs the African American Alliance with Harris, a community engagement manger at Education Northwest. Herndon is the director of the Albina Head Start program. Haines and Bethel, Jr. are co-chairs of the Albina Ministerial Alliance.
"As a group in Portland, we have been marginalized economically and painfully witnessed our neighborhoods red lined and torn asunder," their letter concluded. "It doesn't matter if the racist wears a hood and burns crosses or if they wear business suits and use process to weed us out. The result remains the same."
"We will continue to be vocal in our enduring support for this woman of color who has dedicated her entire professional life to public service, to the betterment of our youth, and to all of Multnomah County."
Update, 11:20 am:
Kafoury has responded to the letter. Here is her response in full:
"Beginning in January, two current and former staff members made serious allegations that Commissioner Loretta Smith had misused county resources and bullied her staff," Kafoury said in a statement.
"Under our rules, the county has a process to thoroughly investigate personnel complaints. We followed that process. As the Multnomah County Chair and Chief Executive Officer, I have an obligation to all employees to maintain a respectful, professional and harassment-free workplace.
Commissioner Smith herself publicly asked that the county investigate these allegations.
We were extremely careful with how we proceeded. The county contracted with an independent third-party investigator specializing in employment law. The county also hired an attorney to represent Commissioner Smith in these matters. Finally, Commissioner Smith received an advance copy of the investigator's final report and she had the opportunity to respond.
In light of what is happening in our country right now, we at Multnomah County take issues of race, gender and religion extremely seriously and strive to ensure that our workplace is free of discrimination. My duty is to ensure that process is followed, regardless of whether those involved are an elected official or line staff.
This isn't about the Commissioner's race, it's about ensuring Multnomah County has a professional and respectful workplace for everyone."