Members of the Multnomah County Community Involvement Committee have filed a lawsuit against the county commission claiming its shutdown of the citizens’ advisory panel was illegal.
Multnomah County commissioners voted in late June to dismiss all members of the citizen-led community involvement group because, county Chair Deborah Kafoury said, volunteer members were too argumentative and some felt “bullied.”
Now the same CIC members who filed suit against the county are taking their position a step further and claiming the right to continue meeting and managing the citizens’ office staff, despite the county’s vote to disband their committee.
Multnomah County Community Involvement Committee Chair-in-Absentia Bernardino De La Torre-Guerrero led a public meeting of the panel Aug. 10 at Concordia University library, where the committee voted to fire its two paid county staff -- a move that has not been honored by the county’s Office of Community Involvement, which runs the CIC.
Voting on that item at the meeting were De La Torre, former CIC Chair Gregory Anderson, and members Yu Te, Ben Brady and Sherry Willmschen.
This group argues that they constitute a quorum of the CIC, for which county staff last posted a meeting agenda on its official website in May.
De La Torre is a career juvenile justice administrator who spent more than 20 years developing social support programs for vulnerable teenagers in Multnomah and Washington counties. He was elected CIC chair before county officials pulled the plug on the entire sitting committee.
“My wishful thought would be that Kafoury would be a little bit more humble in understanding that what she is doing is counter-productive not only for race relations for Multnomah County, but counter-productive toward transparency within our government,” he told The Skanner.
The Multnomah County Office of Community Involvement was created by a vote of the people in 1983, as a tool for taxpayers to have input on policy decisions. The Community Involvement Committee essentially helps run that office -- which also receives dedicated funding -- and is technically tasked with hiring a director and support staff to help the citizens committee.
The conflict started brewing in 2016 when an Office of Community Involvement staff turnover triggered the hire of a new director; meanwhile, citizen volunteers on the CIC became more active in pushing for new county policies, a deeper look at the charter and more independence.
While meeting minutes compiled for the panel by county staff don’t reveal much controversy, the meetings themselves began to trigger deep and sometimes contentious discussions -- especially after the election of Donald J. Trump.
Multiple participants told The Skanner that committee members apologized to each other when the talk got heated -- and that they feel county officials are holding civic volunteers to a double standard, in light of Kafoury’s uttered profanity at another commissioner caught on a live microphone at the end of a tough public meeting last year.
“No one in our meetings ever called someone a ‘b****h’ like Kafoury called Loretta,” De La Torre said.
By April, committee members voted to ban full-time county employees from the CIC, they said to keep county officials from potentially controlling votes and discussions.
Finally, in late June staff from the county chair’s office stepped in and announced the resolution to reconstitute the CIC with almost no notice to committee members, and no discussion with the committee itself.
On June 28, Multnomah County commissioners passed a resolution to “re-set” the citizens commission with fewer powers; only Commissioner Loretta Smith voted against it. The volunteer citizen committee’s right to hire and fire county staff, which had previously been written into the ordinance, was specifically eliminated by the new resolution.
In response, five members of the panel enlisted the help of Portland attorney Dan Meek to file the new lawsuit.
The suit -- which pits the five CIC members against the Multnomah Board of County Commissioners itself -- alleges four complaints:
The lawsuit asks for these acts to be reversed on the grounds that the county “conducted no relevant proceeding, provided no public notice, held no meetings, made no findings of fact and fixed no conclusions of law.”
Elected officials can change some of the rules governing the citizens’ office by passing new ordinances, but a resolution such as the one on the agenda June 28 is not enough -- and even if they passed new ordinances, commissioners still don’t have the power to fire every seated volunteer on the committee, the lawsuit says.
As the unanimously-elected, first-ever Latino chair of the committee in its 35-year history, De La Torre is deeply disappointed in county leadership -- but he says he’s also suspicious of the motives of the county chair’s office in trying to control volunteer citizens’ legally-mandated participation in Multnomah County government.
“Never in the history of Multnomah County have volunteers been ousted and accused of things without any opportunity to speak in their own defense -- brought before the board with vague allegations that they’re not given the opportunity to respond to,” he said.
The goal of the lawsuit, documents show, is to reverse county commissioners’ actions; CIC members who filed the lawsuit are not asking for monetary damages beyond attorney costs.
“The Office of Community Involvement staff members employed before August are still employed. Earlier this summer, the Chief Operating Officer retained an outside investigator to determine whether violation of the personnel rules occurred. That external investigation is still underway,” Multnomah County spokesperson Sullivan-Springhetti wrote in an emailed statement to The Skanner. “ Sullivan-Springhetti also noted the county does not comment on litigation matters.