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Report concurs with Frank O'Donnell's 'plausible explanation' that he had tried to select 'silly' face, not 'yum' face

Oregon City recently hired an investigator to examine a complaint filed against City Commissioner Frank O'Donnell, who said he was sorry for any unintended harm but was glad that the recently released report exonerated him of a harassment charge.COURTESY PHOTO: CITY OF OC - Commissioner Frank O'Donnell sent this text to the now-former Oregon City Recorder Kattie Riggs while she was setting up a meeting.

Now-resigned City Recorder Kattie Riggs launched a formal complaint shortly after giving notice with the city that she had accepted employment elsewhere. The complaint was filed two weeks after the commissioner took the unusual action of stepping down from the dais during an Aug. 4 commission meeting to speak as a private citizen.

During O'Donnell's comments, he took city staff to task for several recent "failures" that he said adversely affected the city's business. The investigator didn't find evidence to support that the complaint against O'Donnell was filed in retaliation for his Aug. 4 comments.

Riggs' complaint listed a handful of examples of alleged harassment, some dating back several years. The most recent incident involved an Aug. 12 text message that O'Donnell sent to Riggs, who interpreted his use of an emoji as sexual in nature. In launching a formal complaint, Riggs wrote, "If this isn't sexual harassment, I don't know what is."

The emoji in question is smiling face with its tongue sticking out. Riggs contended that the emoji's meaning is "yum," while O'Donnell said that he had simply selected the emoji from samples that appeared on his phone while looking for something he considered to be "silly."

"I'm 71 years old," O'Donnell said, "and not emoji literate."

O'Donnell stated that he understands that there is a difference between intent and impact, and he was remorseful that his intent to bring levity had a negative impact on Riggs. He has discontinued his use of emojis now that he's read an article on the dangers of emojis and how easily they can be misconstrued.

Investigator Ryan Fleming of Portland HR Solutions, Inc., wrote in his 33-page report, "Commissioner O'Donnell's statements of being 'emoji illiterate,' of having selected the emoji thinking it was a 'silly' face and not a 'yum' face, and of selecting that particular emoji from a menu rather than typing in the word 'yum' are plausible explanations that reasonably support his assertion that 'there was absolutely no unseemly significance to the emoji' attached to the text message."

O'Donnell said the text referred to a group photo of the City Commission breaking ground on the city's Operations Center less than a year earlier, in September 2020, when he said that he was concerned about the optics of Commissioner Denyse McGriff being the only person kneeling in front of the City Commission. The first person of color on the commission, McGriff confirmed that O'Donnell spoke with her about how it might look to be kneeling in the photograph, and she assured him that she was unconcerned. City officials ended up publicizing the groundbreaking using different photos.

City Commissioner Denyse McGriff said she couldn't speak about Riggs' complaint but could speak generally about O'Donnell's character from her experience knowing him since 2016 as a fellow community volunteer. McGriff said O'Donnell made her feel welcome and valued right away by saying he'd been wanting to meet her during their first interaction during a candidates' forum in 2016.

"It sounds cliché, but with Frank, what you see is what you get," McGriff said. "He is forthright and honest. He's very straightforward, and sometimes he's not a diplomat, but that's true for all of us. It makes me feel very respected that he values my opinion, even though we've had our disagreements."

Oregon City officials initially denied Riggs a copy of the investigation, saying that the report would constitute an unreasonable invasion of O'Donnell's personal privacy.

"I would like to appeal this denial based on the fact that the city did an investigation into a sexual harassment claim made against a currently-seated elected official, and no disciplinary actions were taken or are going to be taken," Riggs wrote to the Clackamas County District Attorney's Office. "This is a person in a high-level position who can influence and lead the city. The citizens have the right to know if the city is trying to hide or cover-up a sexual harassment issue that has arose."

Deputy DA Josh Cutino agreed with Riggs and ordered the city to release the report, and the city did not challenge the DA's decision in court. While the report was an embarrassment to the city and especially to him, O'Donnell said he supported the city's decision not to appeal the DA's decision and instead released the report.

The DA wrote that embarrassment for O'Donnell would not be a factor that Oregon public-records law could consider in determining whether the city had to release a document.

"The report describes an investigation into Commissioner O'Donnell's communications towards a city employee," Cutino wrote. "His workplace conduct and communications with staff bears directly on his ability to effectively serve the community."

Now that the investigation is complete, O'Donnell said the complaint will be unsuccessful in intimidating him, pledging to continue to represent citizens by holding employees accountable for their work performance.


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