Deborah Kafoury, Loretta Smith try to mend fences
In an unprecedented effort to ease hostilities between Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury and Commissioner Loretta Smith, the two elected officials met over the weekend for nearly two hours to try and smooth out their differences.
The meeting addressed long-building tensions that erupted publicly at the end of a Dec. 21 public meeting of the county board — with Kafoury whispering an epithet at Smith, sparking subsequent calls for the chair's resignation.
On Sunday, the two elected officials spoke for nearly two hours at a café in North Portland. The next day, on Monday, Kafoury issued a statement calling the discussion with Smith "really positive," adding, "I was able to apologize to her in person and ask her to join me in moving forward. I've spent a lot of time since Dec. 21 reflecting on my remark and its impact. ... I want to thank Commissioner Smith for her openness."
Smith, for her part, could not be reached to comment on the meeting on Monday, but in a prepared statement she suggested more work was needed, saying that she still hoped the two could have a "mediated conversation" to continue their "work towards a more professional and productive relationship."
Staff for the two officials had traded messages discussing the idea before the Dec. 21 meeting, but it never came to pass.
At the Dec. 21 meeting, Smith was 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.
Following the meeting, Smith sent out a press release calling the epithet racially charged. She told the Portland Tribune that nothing she'd said in the meeting "justifies her calling me the b-word," adding that if disagreement justifies that reaction, "then we're going to be calling each other the b-word every week."
Kafoury then kicked off last week's board meeting by apologizing publicly, calling her own behavior "unprofessional and disrespectful" and calling on Smith to join her in agreeing to disagree "without mudslinging or name-calling." She said she also had phoned Smith shortly after swearing at her, to apologize.
Smith was home sick for the Jan. 4 meeting. But Kafoury's public apology drew mixed reviews from about two dozen people, including employees and allies of Smith, who testified to express their disapproval of the incident, several calling for the chair's resignation.
The disagreement — and efforts to smooth it over — has political implications for 2018.
The tensions came even as scrutiny has been escalating of Smith, with some campaign finance reform activists calling for the commissioner's resignation.
That's because Smith launched her campaign for a seat on the Portland City Council last fall despite a county charter provision that prohibits running for another office in the middle of a county commissioner's term. Smith, for her part, says the county told her actions were lawful as long as she didn't file before January of this year.
In recent weeks, Kafoury and three other members of the county board publicly expressed a desire to consider a new rule that would clarify the county charter and what constitutes prohibited mid-term campaigning. Such a discussion could be uncomfortable for Smith, raising further questions about her campaign.
Testimony blasts Kafoury
The testimony at Thursday's board meeting, however, moved the spotlight to Kafoury.
Kenneth Doswell called the chair's use of the b-word "as insulting as it was racist," adding that it "demonstrates you're not fit to serve either as chair or as a member of this commission ... you should tender your resignation."
Another person who testified, Chuck Crockett, said her apology was not genuine, and he had decided to run against Kafoury in her bid for reelection, saying "that is how deep you have cut our community."
Others who testified, including former Senator Margaret Carter and Pastor Matt Hennessee, expressed disappointment but said they accepted Kafoury's apology.
Alicia Byrd, an African-American county library employee, testified that Kafoury's actions undermined trust in initiatives launched recently by county officials to tackle workforce equity and to improve the handling of bias complaints at the county.
Byrd said the chair's treatment of Smith mirrored her experience as an employee.
"As a black person, you are expected to go along. When you express a divergent view, you are ignored you are ridiculed and you are dismissed ... and that is not acceptable," she said.
In a statement Monday, Smith said that although a text circulated in the community before the meeting saying she was requesting people come to the meeting in support of her, she didn't write it.
"Members of the community turned out because they were outraged by the treatment they witnessed of an African American woman leader," she said, adding that "Indeed I specifically directed my staff NOT to testify."
Hope for closer ties
The issue under discussion at the Dec. 21 meeting had been Kafoury's decision to name the county's chief operating officer, Marissa Madrigal, as her alternate should the chair be incapacitated.
Smith had questioned whether putting a civil servant in that position created a conflict of interest, while portraying the chair's office as driving discrimination.
Even before that meeting was gaveled to a close, relations between Smith and Kafoury had frayed significantly last year —including after Kafoury hired an outside consultant to review complaints made by Smith's staff that the commissioner had been abusive to them, including inappropriate language. Smith calls the investigaton "politically and personally motivated."
In a statement issued after the Jan. 4 meeting, Smith said that she felt her fellow commissioners should "join me in a program to better understand one another's cultures and how that affects our approach to conversation and conflict."
Kafoury said she hopes the board can hold a retreat to forge a better working relationship, citing her talk Sunday with Smith.
"We both agreed that there are so many critical issues facing our community that we are stronger tackling together."