Fired Portland immigrant liaison threatens civil rights lawsuit
Portland officials are declining to comment on a potential civil rights lawsuit against the city by Ronault "Polo" Catalani, a longtime city immigrant and refugee liaison, who was terminated last September.
Attorneys for Catalani filed a tort claim notice of the suit last Wednesday. Representatives of the City Attorney's Office, Mayor Ted Wheeler's office and Commissioner Chloe Eudaly office all declined to respond, saying they cannot comment on pending litigation.
Catalani, who was first appointed to the Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs by former Mayor Tom Potter in 2008, is well known within minority communities and the local news media. He was terminated while off work because of stress, according to the Jan. 23 notice filed by attorney Beth Creighton.
Catalani says he has worked for more than 35 years to integrate immigrants and refugees into the community, including the last 10 years for the city. He insists the threatened lawsuit is intended to pressure the city to live up to its promises.
"This is a lawsuit about moving our liberal mainstream's commitment from pretty speeches to more equitably sharing of our city's benefits and burdens," Catalani says.
Anne Downing, a David Douglas High School teacher who serves on the city's New Portlanders Policy Commission, says Catalani's departure is a huge loss for the city.
"Polo has been actively working to make Portland a better city for its refugee community, which now makes up 20 percent of the population and is growing faster than the city can accommodate," says Downing, who teaches English as a Second Language classes to immigrant children and has known Catalani since 2009. "He has been a wonderful mentor to me, and helped me understand how I can do my job better."
The lengthy notice says Catalani intends to sue for racial discrimination, retaliation under state and federal law and for discrimination and/or retaliation for taking family leave. It documents a series of incidents stretching back many years where city officials and employees have allegedly mistreated Catalani because of ethnicity and religion. The notice says Catalani intends to seek unspecified financial damages.
The notice claims that several personnel rule violations alleged against him were both unfounded and contrary to his personal and religious beliefs. Among other things, the notice says city officials falsely accused him of drinking alcohol at work, while the consumption of alcohol is against his Muslim religion. It described that accusation as a "rumor that would certainly damage his professional, familial, and personal reputations in substantial numbers of Southeast Asian, North and East African, and Middle Eastern, faith communities."
The notice not only says that the city discriminated against Catalani, but that it has never fully committed to the programs where he worked. Among other things, the notice says the City Council never fully funded the immigrant and refugee affairs office after Potter left as mayor the following year, but that Catalani was subsequently shuffled from bureau to bureau and worked under seven different managers, preventing him from helping to develop the systems and secure the funding necessary to integrate immigrant families into the life of the city.
"The City has proven unwilling to officially adapt its structures to accommodate the work that Mr. Catalani was asked to do as the City's liaison between Portland's newcomer communities and City government," the notice reads, adding, "City policy leaders and managers have failed to commit to policies and practices in support of Mr. Catalani's position responsibilities."
In addition, the notice says Catalani's position was downgraded twice during his tenure, being reclassified from Program Manager under Potter to Program Coordinator and then Program Specialist, even though he was to perform increasingly complex and even additional non-immigrant program responsibilities. Catalani most recently worked in the Office of Community and Civic Life, which is under Commissioner Chloe Eudaly.
"He was set up to fail in ways big and small," says the notice.
Catalani was born in the Republic of Indonesia and raised between there and the Kingdom of the Netherlands, which once claimed it. He first moved to Oregon with his family as a refugee sponsored by the late Oregon U.S. Sen. Mark Hatfield, eventually graduated from Willamette Law School and opening a firm in Salem specializing in immigration and refugee cases before moving to Portland in 1986.
After being hired by Portland, Catalani and the programs he started or worked on have won numerous international, national, state and local awards. They include a Partners in Charity Award from Catholic Charities just last year.
You can read the tort claim notice here.
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