Mark Shull suggests disbanding Clackamas County veterans council
Clackamas County is investigating whether its Veterans Advisory Council (VAC) improperly used time to engage in a dialogue with Commissioner Mark Shull regarding disparaging statements he made on Facebook regarding Muslims and other groups.
During their March 4 meeting, Shull suggested to his fellow county commissioners that its VAC be dissolved in its current form and re-established using an application process looking at the military biographies of those interested in serving on the committee. Shull, a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps, said the goal of this reform would be to strip the council of any partisanship.
Shull's suggestion stems from VAC's Feb. 25 meeting, when he was invited by council members to join in a mediated conversation regarding the impact of the statements he's made on social media.
At that meeting held virtually via Zoom, three VAC members spoke regarding their experience hearing the statements Shull made.
First was Milwaukie resident Adam Khosroabadi, who serves as VAC secretary. Khosroabadi, who is a Muslim Iranian-American, spoke about his time serving in the U.S. Marine Corps in Iraq and the oath he took to defend the rights of all Americans.
Khosroabadi said he joined the Marine Corps following 9/11 out of a need to show that Muslims and Islam were not the enemy.
"In my experiences in the military, color didn't determine anything. Your belief systems, your religion, didn't determine anything, because in this country, you have the right to believe in the religion you want. You have the right to love who you want," Khosroabadi said. "These are rights that the majority of people on this screen right now have fought for, have served for and have lost somebody for. That's why we're here today because of us as veterans."
Khosroabadi said no matter what takes place, with calls to resign or a potential recall of Shull in four months, Khosroabadi's commitment is to moving the conversation forward and allow the community to heal from the damage he believes Shull's statements have caused.
Casey Curry, a veteran member of the VAC and executive director of the Milwaukie-based nonprofit Veterans & Families Resource Center of Oregon, said it's hard for her to see how Shull best represents the interests of Clackamas County's veterans given the statements he's made.
"We hear you basically playing word games, saying one thing when this group of people is around, and the opposite when another group is around," Curry said. "I, sir, do not trust that as a veteran citizen of Clackamas County, you have my best interests in mind."
Emily Shannon, a Clackamas County Resolution Services mediator facilitating the discussion, posed three questions to Shull, which he had the opportunity to address directly.
The first question was how Shull felt he could represent all residents of Clackamas County, to which he replied that he has not had issues with Muslim people outside of his military service, and noted that he apologized on Jan. 14 for any concern his statements caused.
"I've always spoken out against the potential for conflict with Islamic doctrine in Western society. I have not had problems with Muslims as people," Shull told the council. "I realized that some of my comments could have been very upsetting to members of the Muslim community, and I took action to meet with them."
Shull challenged members of the council — much like he did in conversations over Board of County Commissioners liaison assignments with Commissioners Sonya Fischer — to find instances where he treated people with disrespect due to their race, religion or sexual orientation.
"I've got plenty of friends who are from the LGBT community, never a problem," he said. "I have spoken up about gender reassignment surgery, and I, especially when it comes to children, don't apologize for those comments. You won't find a member of the LGBT community who has interacted with Mark Shull who's going to say, 'Mark was disrespectful to me.'"
Shull said the same goes for allegations of racism and xenophobia.
"When it comes to being a racist, or a homophobe, or a xenophobe, I challenge you to find somebody who can say they interacted with me and felt that I was one of those things," he said.
The second question from the VAC asked Shull to identify the path forward following the publication of his statements. Shull said that his conduct and performance since Jan. 11 speak for themselves, stating that he has made and continues to make good decisions on behalf of all the county's residents regardless of race, gender, religion or immigration status.
The final question asked Shull how he plans to continue the dialogue, to which he said he's open to talking to anyone and that the door to his commissioner's office is open.
"I would like for those who accused me of being these things we've just mentioned to give me an example of somebody who has had an interaction with me and can say I'm a racist or against the LGBT community or against immigrants," Shull said. "But until that happens, I will continue to work to represent everybody in this county, regardless of their background, regardless where they came from, to the best of my ability."
According to Khosroabadi, while he was happy that Shull took the time to meet with the VAC, he wasn't satisfied with Shull's response.
Khosroabadi said that Shull shouldn't need to be given an example of a victim in order to understand the hurt and distrust his comments have sewn. Khosroabadi was shocked to learn that Shull had turned to county commissioners and suggested disbanding the current VAC following the meeting.
"It was almost like the commitment to open dialogue only lasted about 24 hours," Khosroabadi said. "It was saddening because he's a veteran, many of us thanked him for his service, and instead of continuing the dialogue and getting to the root of the issue, it was, 'Let's just disband it.'"
Khosroabadi likened the call to disband the current VAC to Shull's statements equating calls for him to resign to "cancel culture."
"Because we spoke out against what he said, he's trying to cancel us," he said.
At the board's March 4 meeting, County Chair Tootie Smith said that County Administrator Gary Schmidt will use all the time and resources available to him to "get to the bottom of what was probably an unfortunate meeting."
"This behavior will not be tolerated ever again because this veterans committee has aggrieved every single veteran in this county, and let that be clear," Smith said.
VAC member and retired U.S. Air Force veteran Laurie Kimmel told county commissioners she believes the group has lost its way in terms of fulfilling its mission to advise the board on how best to serve the county's veterans, instead focusing lately on negative comments, and personal attacks about Shull and Smith.
"We have become a political, hostile work environment. Instead of following our purpose statement, which is to be advisory to the commissioners to ensure the needs of our veterans, their health, their housing," Kimmel said.
Khosroabadi said that while VAC members understand that their role is to advise county commissioners, it's not their role to be purely subservient to the commission and obey unquestioningly.
"I'm still open for dialogue, I still want to talk to (Mark Shull)," Khosroabadi said. "I'm not the enemy, I'm a constituent."
The county's top administrator told Pamplin Media Group that the investigation into the Feb. 25 meeting is underway and that he will be reviewing the meeting video and getting back to county commissioners with a report so they can make a decision on how to proceed.
County Commissioner Sonya Fischer said that the she does not support any action to disband and reform the VAC, characterizing Shull's suggestion as "out of line and entirely unacceptable."
"As the proud daughter of a WWII veteran, I find it deeply insulting that one of Mark Shull's first acts as a public official is an effort to silence concerns from valued members of our community," Fischer said. "His recommendation to disband the committee and appoint new members of his selection is an affront to democracy that these veterans fought for, and an entirely inappropriate way for a public official to respond to criticism."
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