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Multnomah Chair apologizes to Commissioner in person at public board meeting for epithet

TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO - Commissioner Loretta Smith (left) on Thursday told Chair Deborah Kafoury (middle) that it will take her time to heal from the chair's use of the 'b-word.'Chair Deborah Kafoury's use of the "b-word" toward Comissioner Loretta Smith will have lingering effects, Smith said at Thursday's regular meeting of the county board.

Smith's statements came during a tense and dramatic exchange at the meeting. At one point, the District-2 commissioner got up from her seat at the board podium and walked toward the door before Kafoury called her back.

The two were facing each other publicly for the first time since Kafoury whispered an epithet at Smith immediately following a Dec. 21 board meeting.

The incident has been widely publicized, coming at a time when Smith is running for Portland City Council against several other candidates.

Kafoury had apologized publicly in a statement the day it happened, also leaving Smith a voicemail. She sent a written apology to employees, and apologized again at a Jan. 4 board meeting that Smith did not attend. Kafoury also apologized privately in person to Smith last Sunday in a nearly two-hour meeting at a North Portland cafe.

But after several members of the community opened the Jan. 11 meeting by blasting Kafoury for the incident, Smith asked to speak. She revisited the exchange, calling it "degrading." and questioned Kafoury's initial apology, in which Kafoury had portrayed the chair's actions as responding to Smith attacking staff publicly.

Smith said it would be disingenous to say that "this did not insult me in a way that I don't know how to heal from this."

For Smith to move forward would require "atonement" from Kafoury, the commissioner said. She wanted to hear Kafoury publicly apologize while repeating the epithet, and say "I apologize for blaming the victim for my bad behavior."

Smith added, "In order for me to heal I am telling you that I need you to understand that what you did was more than bad behavior or bad manners ...

It hit me to my core ... and it has an impact on me that you will never ever understand.

"Until you do that the employees of this Multnomah County will not be able to move forward because you're giving license to those who are in charge to treat them with the same disrespect."

Clearly not expecting Smith's request, Kafoury at first tried to return the meeting to the scheduled agenda. But Smith got up as if to leave the meeting, causing Kafoury to call her back. She apologized again, noting that she had discussed the incident with her family. She eventually used the words Smith had requested she use.

"I am sorry for blaming you the victim for my bad behavior," she said, adding that she understood Smith's healing would take a while. She said she looked forward to working with her on policies "when you are ready."

Smith did not explicitly accept Kafoury's apology, saying, "Thank you and I can appreciate your apology."

History of tension

At the Dec. 21 meeting that was at issue, Smith had been hammering on a theme she's raised on multiple occasions this year— raising concerns about top-down "institutional racism" that she indicated was coming from Kafoury's office —when the chair talked over Smith, saying "you're done," gaveled the meeting to a close and whispered what sounded like "you're a b——" before walking out of the room.

Relations between Smith and Kafoury had frayed significantly even before the meeting. Earlier in the year Kafoury hired an outside consultant to review complaints made by Smith's staff that the commissioner had misused staff and been abusive to them, including using inappropriate, abusive and profane language. Smith on one occasion called a fellow commissioner a "b----," one former employee said.

Smith has said she does not recall using the b-word to refer to a fellow commissioner. She told the investigator she does not make a habit of profanity, according to the report.

Smith has noted that the investigation did not confirm any of the specific allegations, instead reporting a pattern of them. She has linked the report to a "strategy directed by the County Chair to hurt me politically. "

A group of community members and Smith allies issued a letter blasting the investigation and echoing Smith's portrayal of it as racially and politically motivated.

Kafoury, for her part, said she had a responsibility to launch the investigation in light of the public complaints, much as she had launched an investigation of workplace complaints against former Sheriff Dan Staton.

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