City hosted 'Building Bridges' meeting to discuss racism, community actions

PMG SCREENSHOT - Michael Fesser, right, was joined by Pastor Herman Greene Wednesday, July 8, at a virtual town hall meeting hosted by the city of West Linn. About 16 miles separate West Linn and the North/Northeast Portland area that Michael Fesser calls home. The distance can be covered in an almost perfectly straight line, running north or south depending on where you're coming from — and takes about 28 minutes without traffic.

But as Fesser and others said during a town hall meeting Wednesday, July 8, the gap between the two areas — and, more importantly, between West Linn and Black Oregon residents — is much wider than sheer mileage could tell you, and it's become more important than ever to try to bridge that divide.

Fesser appeared alongside Pastor Herman Greene of Abundant Life PDX at the long-awaited meeting that was intended to be an open forum to discuss racial discrimination and, in particular, how West Linn can move forward in the aftermath of the West Linn Police Department's racially-motivated false arrest of Fesser in 2017. That incident garnered national headlines after the city reached a settlement with Fesser earlier this year, and several investigations of the case are ongoing.

The prevailing sentiment expressed by Fesser and other citizens during the 2 ½-hour meeting was simple: The time for idle talk is over.

"I just don't just want to have conversations about what we can do — I want to do something," Fesser said at the beginning of the meeting, which was held virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic. "We have to find space, find somewhere, find people in West Linn that really want change and the healing process to start, to step up and say 'This is what we're going to do; this is what we need to do.' We need you guys here as well as we need to be there so we can feel accepted coming into your community, coming into the outskirts of Northeast, North Portland."

All five West Linn city councilors attended the meeting, and Mayor Russ Axelrod opened by apologizing to Fesser and promising to push for change.

"On behalf of our council, our city and our community, I want to apologize again to you Michael Fesser, and to your family, for the despicable and inhumane treatment you received at the hands of our West Linn officers in 2017, and the impacts of their behavior on you, your family, your community in Northeast Portland, to Black communities everywhere and to our West Linn community," Axelrod said. "While I've always believed and felt this is not who we are as a community, your experience and the historical record of our police department actions demonstrate that we are not who we think we are, and we have a lot of work ahead to reform our systems, policies, programs, and take other actions that we feel are necessary to bring about true change."

A number of residents felt that those actions should start with holding people accountable — including several staff members who remain employed with West Linn. The city did recently fire Sgt. Tony Reeves, the lead detective in the Fesser investigation.

"We need accountability for our West Linn Police Department sooner rather than later," said Kathy Selvaggio, a founding member of the West Linn Alliance for Inclusive Community. "It's taking a very long time for these investigations to be completed, and meanwhile we're paying out large sums of money for police officers who are currently on paid leave and others who are implicated in this Fesser case and are still in their current jobs."

Specifically, she mentioned Chief Terry Kruger, who is on paid administrative leave as the city investigates his role in the Fesser case, as well as acting chief Peter Mahuna and Captain Oddis Rollins. Mahuna and Rollins were both in attendance at the July 8 meeting.

"It's clear from the public record that Captain Rollins completed a very, very flawed internal investigation of Sgt. (Tony) Reeves, completely ignoring some of the racial elements of text messages, completely ignoring illegal surveillance, and his investigation ended up resulting in a slap in the wrist for Sgt. Reeves," Selvaggio said. "In the meantime (Rollins) received a promotion to captain. Acting chief Mahuna did originally say to the press that there was no reason to do any further investigation into Sgt. Reeves, and he's on the record asking the council in a closed session whether the whole matter could be kept quiet and away from public view."

Resident Rachel Tillman echoed some of those points, and also called for interim city manager John Williams to fire Kruger.

"Leadership has not admitted their faults in this," she said. "And I don't mean saying 'I'm sorry that it happened,' … (I mean) admitting what they did was wrong and accepting discipline for that."

Neither Mahuna nor Rollins directly responded to the comments about their roles in the Fesser case, but Mahuna said the police department was making a sincere effort to change the reputation it earned over the years.

"There's no question mistakes were made throughout the entire Fesser case," Mahuna said. "Hindsight is 20/20; we can't go back and undo that stuff, but while I'm a placeholder (as acting chief) I can try to move the department forward."

He said he invited Fesser to speak to every employee at the police department.

"This police department is the one that did you wrong, so it's important to me that everyone here listen to your story," Mahuna said.

Rollins, who is a Black man, spoke of how a conversation with Fesser at a local gathering in honor of George Floyd was the jumpoff point for a new program he's starting that unites youth from West Linn and Portland with a police officer over an informal lunch.

"I understand deeply this struggle, and what we're fighting against and what we're fighting for," Rollins said. "I wanted to give some of these youth who don't have or haven't had a lot of positive interactions with police officers an opportunity to do that."

During the meeting Axelrod also read a letter from West Linn-Wilsonville School District Superintendent Kathy Ludwig, which detailed measures the district has already taken to address issues around diversity. Issues with racism and underrepresentation within the district were a focal point during the meeting, and many residents said WL-WV has a long way to go. Axelrod, for his part, noted that he did not agree with some of the points in Ludwig's letter but did not get into specifics.

Greene, the pastor at Abundant Life PDX, noted that West Linn is only examining its police department because its problems were exposed by the Fesser lawsuit.

"Have we done this same exposure look in our school system?" he said. "What do they call black kids in school? What do they say when you're not there? … How many black teachers do you have within West Linn?

"Although the verbiage (from the school district) sounds good, give me a number."

Fesser added that students of color need to be truly heard, and that can be difficult when no one around them shares their background.

"The kids can't open up and speak until they know they're going to be heard," Fesser said. "And can they be heard by someone who doesn't really hear because they've been clouded with being in a community that doesn't accept us on the right level? And at the same level?"

Linda Dayton, a West Linn resident, said she had a Black son at West Linn High School and that he has suffered from the lack of diversity.

"Probably, had I researched further, I would not have moved here," she said. "I'm still trying to pull him out into a better atmosphere where he will be around people who look like him.

"My experience here has been disappointing to say the least."

Some councilors expressed interest in holding a work session with the West Linn-Wilsonville School Board to discuss how to address diversity and equity issues. Councilor Jules Walters, however, said she preferred to focus on how to address the myriad problems at the city level.

"We need to take responsibility for what we can do," Walters said. "There's other issues besides education: housing, land use, zoning, hiring practices. … We need to clean our house first."

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