Commissioner Loretta Smith Decries “Entrenched Bias” at Multnomah County

County's only elected African-American official calls for independent investigation, community oversight.

Multnomah County Commissioner Loretta Smith at a rally to save Obamacare on Jan. 15, 2017. (Joe Riedl)

Multnomah County Commissioner Loretta Smith today called for an outside independent examination what she says is "entrenched bias" at the county.

Smith's comments come on the heels of tumultuous events in Multnomah County's largest area of focus, its 1,400 person health department.

Joanne Fuller, the director of that department, abruptly resigned earlier this week, one business day after the county agreed to pay Tricia Tillman, the county's former director of public health, a settlement worth about $175,000.

"This issue goes beyond one employee," Smith said. "We're talking about something experienced by many employees of color." (Tillman and Smith are black.)

Smith made her remarks this afternoon at a press conference at county headquarters. She was introduced by former Sen. Margaret Carter (D-Portland), the first African American woman to serve in the Oregon Legislature and state Sen. Lew Frederick (D-Portland), the only African American lawmaker from Portland and one of just three African-American state senators.

Carter decried "systemic racism" at the county, citing the testimony of more than a dozen employees on Sept. 15. Those employees were reacting to Tillman's firing, first reported by the Portland Tribune and The Skanner.

In his remarks, Frederick talked about the "insidious" nature of institutional racism.

"It's not just about how or whether people are hired," Frederick said. "It's how they are treated and retained."

Smith said the county should also empanel a community oversight committee to examine the county's personnel policies and practices.

She also wants the entire county board of commissioners, not just Chair Deborah Kafoury, to be involved in selecting an outside, independent firm to examine both Tillman's firing and also county personnel and legal procedures.

Dismissing a one-page letter from county Human Resources Director Travis Graves that said Tillman's firing was appropriate, Smith took what seemed like a jab at a county investigation of her earlier this year.

"It was a one-sided process like other investigations by Multnomah County," Smith said.

In response to Smith's remarks, Multnomah County Chief Operating Officer Marissa Madrigal pledged in an interview today that there will be a thorough independent review of the type Smith is seeking, including a review of Tillman's firing as a "case study."

Madrigal said there is "structural racism" within the county's operations and such racism has "disparate impact" on minority employees.

But Madrigal says Kafoury plans to delegate the selection of the outside firm to her—not the board, as Smith wants. Madrigal says she expects to hire a firm with a national practice and expertise in examining how large bureaucracies operate.

That examination won't happen overnight.

"I'd expect to have a final report by the end of the fiscal year, next June," Madrigal said.

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