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July 3rd, 2013 AARON MESH | News Stories
 

City Hall Pass

Why Hales refused to fire an aide who made sexual comments to a County Commissioner.

news2_3935A SPECIAL CASE: Mayor Charlie Hales says he didn’t fire embattled aide Baruti Artharee because he is crucial to police reforms. “We want to demonstrate that an employee can make a mistake, be disciplined and retrained, and get back to work if they’re a valued employee,” Hales says. “And Baruti is a valued employee.” - IMAGE: Peter Hiatt
Karol Collymore got angry when she learned last month a top aide to Portland Mayor Charlie Hales had made sexually suggestive remarks at a public event to Multnomah County Commissioner Loretta Smith.

She got even madder when she learned it wasn’t the first time Baruti Artharee, the mayor’s public safety adviser, had made inappropriate comments toward Smith.

And now that Hales has let Artharee off with only a week’s suspension?

Collymore is livid.

“The first time the issue of diversity is tested, [Hales] takes a pass,” says Collymore, who lost to Smith in a 2010 race for county commissioner. “If Loretta can be harassed in a roomful of people without repercussions, what does that say for the rest of us? The chilling effect on other women is palpable.”

Hales announced July 1 that he chose this limited punishment—far less than many community leaders demanded—for Artharee.

In his first interview about the controversy, Hales tells WW he refused Artharee’s offer to resign and decided against firing him for one basic reason: Hales wants to force fundamental cultural changes within the Police Bureau, and Artharee, his police liaison, is too valuable to lose.

“Who do you want by my side when we rise to that challenge of recruiting the officers who are going to be here for 25 years?” Hales says. “I want Baruti Artharee right next to me. Who better?”

The Artharee case put Hales’ commitment to equity—one of City Hall’s favorite buzzwords—to a rare public test.

His decision—weeks after assigning himself the Office of Equity—raises questions  whether Hales has allowed Artharee to enjoy a double standard other city employees do not.

The issues also involves race. Both Smith and Artharee are African-American. Smith says she has faced pressure from some leaders of the city’s African-American community to back off and drop her criticism of Artharee.

“Leadership is neither black nor white,” says former Sen. Margaret Carter, the first African-American woman elected to the state Legislature. “Leadership is making a hard decision at an appropriate time. I hope the race card does not get played in this issue, or else every woman is at risk of being treated with disrespect.”

“Race played no role,” Hales says.

Kathleen Saadat, a longtime African-American lesbian activist and the city’s former diversity manager, says Hales’ decision undermines city discrimination policies.

“If someone had offended [Multnomah County Chairman] Jeff Cogen in a public meeting, there wouldn’t have been all this folderol,” Saadat says. “There would have been a quick and immediate apology.”

Hales has been criticized for being slow to respond to the allegations, first reported on wweek.com, that Artharee made inappropriate comments to Smith in front of 40 people at a June 6 event.

“Here’s our beautiful commissioner, Loretta Smith,” Artharee said. “Mmm, mmm, mmm—she looks good tonight.”

An investigation by the city’s Human Resources Bureau found Artharee, 60, had a history of making offensive comments about Smith, 48, in public.

The investigation’s report says Artharee introduced Smith as a keynote speaker at an Oregon Association of Minority Entrepreneurs event a year ago. According to several witnesses, Artharee told the audience she looked good in her red dress.

Smith also told investigators that six weeks ago, while Artharee was working for the mayor, Artharee emceed a “Diamonds and Denim” gala. He introduced Smith to the crowd by saying, “The commissioner looked good in those jeans.”

How did Artharee explain his comments? He told city investigators he called Smith “beautiful,” but did not specifically mention her clothes.

And the reason for his public comments about her appearance, Artharee said, had to do with race.

“Mr. Artharee further explained,” the report said, “that he goes out of his way to acknowledge the beauty of African-American women due to their historical mistreatment.”

Smith told investigators she was under pressure to stay quiet.

“[Smith] also described ‘backlash’ and a ‘fallout’ within the African-American community resulting from Mr. Artharee’s comments,” the report said. “She has been asked by certain community members to ‘shut this down’ and questioned why she is ‘outing’ an African-American male in a leadership position.”

Hales visited Smith’s office June 28 to tell her he was suspending Artharee for a week without pay—docking him $1,681.

Smith won’t discuss what happened in that meeting. Hales indicates she wasn’t happy. “I understand that she’s frustrated with me that it happened at all,” he says.

Hales is also making Artharee take an individualized diversity training course. Artharee, a former executive at the Portland Development Commission and Providence Health & Services, was a diversity consultant for Multnomah County, among other clients, before accepting a job at City Hall.

The mayor says he has no doubt Artharee can play an important role in reforming the Police Bureau despite his past actions. Artharee, the mayor says, won’t make “any more cavalier remarks about people, including women.”

“I want him to serve his time with this discipline,” Hales says. “I want him to take the training, and then I want him on the horse, riding forward, to get this important work done.”  


WW reporter Nigel Jaquiss contributed to this story.

 
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