What to make of county chair's whispered expletive to her fellow commissioner on Dec. 21?

TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO - Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury (center) used an expletive to denigrate Commissioner Loretta Smith (left) following a meeting last week, triggering new uncertainties for the board's future.On Dec. 21, Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury gaveled to a close a Board of Commissioners meeting, turned off her mic, leaned over to Commissioner Loretta Smith, and emphatically called her an expletive.

Delivered in a loud whisper, Kafoury's use of the "b-word" was audible in the room. And Smith — who has said she intends to run for Portland City Council — quickly amplified Kafoury's words with a press release saying the chair had taken "overtly hostile behavior to another level ... This is not how we should be conducting business in Multnomah County."

Kafoury sent out her own statement calling her actions "regrettable" as well as "unprofessional and unbecoming." But she also blamed Smith for "egregious" behavior and attacking county staff.

What's clear in the wake of the public exchange is that the long-building tension between the two elected officials is now fully out in the open.

What's not clear is what happens next. Will the hostilities between the two rise to a new level, and impact the functioning of the county's wide-ranging bureaucracy that oversees everything from health clinics to jails? And will it affect the political futures of the two ambitious politicians?

Kafoury did not respond to a request for an interview. But Smith agreed to talk about it on Friday.

"Nothing that I said yesterday justifies her calling me the b-word," Smith said, adding that if disagreement justifies that reaction, "then we're going to be calling each other the b-word every week."

"I think she thinks that everyone should agree with her," Smith added, before echoing one of her campaign themes in her candidacy for Portland City Council. "Sometimes we're going to disagree about policies; that's why you have diverse elected officials. Because diversity in elected officials is going to bring diversity in the policies and it's going to give voice to the voiceless."

History of clashes

Kafoury and Smith have clashed over issues ranging from the county budget to the fate of the never-opened Wapato jail.

The tension between the two escalated this year in the wake of complaints by two former Smith staffers who accused Smith of abusive behavior, among other things.

Smith initially called for an investigation of the allegations. But after Kafoury hired a consultant to review the claims, Smith filed a tort-claim notice against Kafoury alleging the investigation was motivated by "racial bias" or political motives.

The investigation did not positively confirm the allegations, but detailed a pattern that suggested abusive behavior had occurred. One claim was that Smith had called a fellow commissioner the b-word to her staff.

In September, Smith blamed the Kafoury-approved ouster of county public health Director Tricia Tillman, who is African-American, on "entrenched bias," echoing a letter by Tillman faulting the county for institutional racism.

In response, Kafoury called for an independent consultant to review hiring and retention policies. Her chief operating officer, Marissa Madrigal, said the county was not denying institutional racism; it was tackling it head-on.

Those incidents help explain the tensions at the Dec. 21 meeting, at which Kafoury had proposed what typically would be a routine item, naming Madrigal to be her interim successor in the event that Kafoury is incapacitated or can't perform her duties.

Under the county's form of government, Madrigal is supposed to implement policies set by the board, even though the bureaucracy she oversees is directed by Kafoury herself.

That's when Smith, citing conversations with county staff, raised questions about the propriety of having the head of Multnomah's bureaucracy being politically aligned with Kafoury, saying that under it "there is so much room for institutional and structural racism."

And without faulting Kafoury by name, Smith said Tillman's ouster was the product of racism.

"What happens when the structural and institutional racism is coming from the chair's office?" Smith added, saying that Tillman faulted racism as "coming from the top."

Kafoury called for a vote even as Smith asked the county counsel, Jenny Madkour, for input, the two talking over one another. Video of the meeting shows Kafoury's requests for their "aye" vote go unheeded by fellow Commissioners Jessica Vega Pederson and Lori Stegmann, as they watched the exchange impassively.

Then Kafoury gaveled the meeting to a close, tabling it for another day, before whispering what sounds like "you're a" and then the expletive to Smith.

To watch the full meeting, click here.

Following Smith's press release, Vega Pederson issued her own statement. "It's so important as elected leaders to maintain our professionalism, even – especially – during times of disagreement and stress. At a time when respect for our public institutions is at a low point and public decorum lacking, we must rise above the fray and show one another the respect each individual deserves ... there is never an excuse to direct language like that at a colleague."

The following day, Smith declined to say whether she had been insinuating Kafoury is racist, and whether that's what sparked Kafoury to lash out.

"I didn't call her racist at all yesterday," Smith said, adding that she "was really embarrassed ... I was shocked that the chair would call me the b-word in a setting like a board meeting. It's disrespectful."

Future questions

Jim Moore, a political analyst and director of the Tom McCall Center for Policy Innovation, said, politically speaking, Kafoury's public use of a pejorative expletive for Smith is "almost horrific in this day and age. It's not where you want to go, as we're a little more puritanical right now." But, he added of Kafoury, "her apology was swift."

What happens next is unclear, said Moore, who also teaches government at Pacific University.

Under Portland's late mayor, Vera Katz, the city brought in a consultant to help ease conflicts on the City Council that had made it hard for people to work together and get things done. But Moore isn't sure things have gotten to that point at the county.

Then there is the matter of politics. Smith has not formally filed yet, but is running for Portland City Council, and is actively raising funds. Kafoury, a former state lawmaker, is expected to run for reelection in 2018, and her name has come up in speculation as a future candidate for mayor of Portland and governor.

As for how the exchange affects Smith in her current run, or Kafoury in future campaigns, "it depends on the electorate that turns out," Moore said.

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