Clackamas County chair says 'good relations' with Metro regional government are at stake over noose incident

PMG PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Tony White pushes collected trash into a compactor at the Metro South transfer station in Oregon City.In a statement released this week, Clackamas County Board Chair Tootie Smith disputes a Metro official's claim that Smith showed a "lack of empathy and leadership" regarding the finding of a rope allegedly tied in the shape of a noose at a garbage and recycling center in April.

Smith said Metro President Lynn Peterson owes county commissioners an apology for Metro's "false accusations."

At a May 4 policy meeting, Metro COO Marissa Madrigal asked county commissioners for their help in condemning a series of racist actions towards employees at the Metro South Transfer Station in Oregon City. Staff at Metro South found a rope that was allegedly tied in the shape of a noose on April 20, the same day former police officer Derek Chauvin was convicted of murdering George Floyd. 

Smith responded that she had not heard of the news, despite coverage in several media outlets, and told Madrigal that she should not surprise the board with such news if Metro wants to maintain a good relationship.

FILE PHOTO - Tootie SmithPeterson later released a statement critical of Smith's response, saying, "I was disappointed by the lack of empathy and leadership in confronting and condemning the racism faced by Chair Smith's constituents in Clackamas County."

In her latest letter, Smith reiterates that she "knew nothing about" the incident.

"I for one was aghast that our residents were being accused as being racist. I did not hear of a noose sighting," Smith said. "A phone call from Metro staff to Clackamas County staff should have been the first order of business. Instead, my commission and I were ambushed in a very public and humiliating way."

She also points out that a recent investigation into whether or not the rope was meant as a racist symbol was "inconclusive."

A June 29 investigative report released by Metro revealed that "no employees reported any incidents or interactions that led them to believe that the rope was left intentionally as retaliation or a threat, racially motivated or otherwise," and no one witnessed the rope before it was left at the site.

"It is difficult to move on from this without knowing who left the rope or why it was left. But this does not mean that this incident did not happen or have an immense impact on us," wrote Metro Councilor Christine Lewis in the report. "It impacted, and continues to impact, us deeply and brought to light that our staff of color at Metro South are too often the target of inappropriate and racist language from members of the public. That is unacceptable."

"Lynn Peterson owes Clackamas County commissioners an apology for these false accusations," Smith said in the letter. "Yes, indeed words hurt and relations are bruised, as you so pointedly made clear with the false accusation of racism."

Peterson's spokesperson Nick Christensen responded to Smith's statement by reminding her and the public that Metro staff had shared information about a pattern of incidents at the transfer station, incidents which included racist verbal abuse directed at transfer station staff.

"If Chair Smith had been listening during that discussion, she would have heard that there are issues that run far deeper than the discovery of a rope tied like a noose," Christensen said. "Instead of saying 'I stand with my constituents who work at Metro South and condemn racist behavior by customers,' she again is attacking people for calling out racism."

Smith concluded her statement by stating that "there is much at stake" relating to Metro's relationship with BCC, elaborating that Metro promised that $24 million in funding for supportive housing services would be available to the county on July 1, yet instead the county only received $150,000.

"If good relations are to be had with Oregon's regional government, I suggest a mea culpa is in order or surely it will be rough going for a regional government who appears to disrespect its own people," Smith said.

Metro officials are taking steps in an effort to help prosecute any future such incidents at the garbage-transfer facility as a hate crime. Without video footage or witnesses of the person who left the noose, police were unable to investigate further.

"As a result of this incident and investigation, Metro South updated its exclusion policy and procedures to ensure ease and safety of reporting for impacted staff and accountability for customers who violate our code of conduct," Lewis wrote. "Metro has also hired security staff to work at Metro South to deliver exclusions and interact with challenging customers. And lastly, Metro has also initiated a security assessment at Metro South to ensure we have comprehensive and clear video footage in the event of a future incident."

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