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Multnomah Leader Says County Isn't Addressing Racial Bias


Multnomah County Commissioner Loretta Smith.

Multnomah County Commissioner Loretta Smith.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra/OPB

A Multnomah County commissioner called on the county board chair Wednesday to independently investigate the ouster of a black county employee.

County Commissioner Loretta Smith stood with elected leaders at a press conference Wednesday and demanded the review for Tricia Tillman, the county’s former public health director.

“There exists entrenched bias that could be found in a practice of discrimination as experienced by so many county employees of color,” Smith said.

Smith’s call for action comes less than two weeks after county board Chair Deborah Kafoury announced the county was hiring a national consultant to examine its human resources department and its employment practices. The county says that review would include an examination into Tillman’s firing.

Smith, who is running for Portland City Council, called on Kafoury to investigate how the county attorney handles cases of alleged racial bias. She’s also asking for an investigation into Kafoury’s own executive office and how they process complaints “lodged at the highest levels.”

 

Tillman alleges she was terminated without explanation after she returned from leave. In a letter dated Sept. 7, Tillman asked county commissioners to investigate her firing. 

“This treatment smacks of institutional racism and disparate treatment,” Tillman wrote in the letter. “It contradicts how other senior leaders who are not black are treated and conflicts with County and Health Department values of workforce equity and work-life balance.”

Multnomah County Health Director Joanna Fuller, who was Tillman’s superior, retired on Monday, days after the county reached a more than $150,000 settlement with Tillman.

“That made my alarm bells go off,” Smith said.

The Portland Tribune reported Tuesday that the county human resources department conducted its own investigation into Tillman’s firing and found no evidence of racial discrimination. 

“I ask you: Since when is the accused perpetrator the investigator?” Smith said at the press conference. 

Smith said the selection of that consultant and the presentation of findings should involve community oversight groups. 

In the interim, the county said Kafoury has directed that all race-related complaints either be handled by the county’s chief operating officer or the director of the related department.

County officials said they’re also working with the community and the Employees of Color Employee Resource Group to implement a workforce equity ordinance passed last week.

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