TAKING PAINS to say he was being sufficiently "strict," Mayor Charlie Hales moved to snuff a slow-burn scandal over a senior aide's sexually suggestive remarks about County Commissioner Loretta Smith—issuing yet another apology and handing public safety advisor Baruti Artharee a one-week suspension without pay.
"As I said from the start, this incident is a serious matter and required a serious response," Hales said on Monday, July 1, while releasing a Portland Bureau of Human Resources report that found Artharee guilty of violating the city's harassment policy when he made certain comments about Smith.
"In addition to my apology to Commissioner Smith," Hales went on, "I apologize to the community at large. Everyone deserves respect for their competence and accomplishments. Women in particular."
Hales noted he could have fired Artharee but didn't, refusing his offer to resign in light of his work in the past few months on police reform and accountability. He's assigned Artharee to an intensive, one-on-one training session on the city's harassment policy and made it clear Artharee would be fired if he's found guilty of harassment again.
But despite Hales' attempt to settle an issue that played across political fault lines—gender and race (both Artharee and Smith are leaders in the city's African American community)—it's clear the issue has yet to lose its sting.
Smith told investigators she lost sleep and was pressured to stop calling out a prominent African American man. In a statement, she said the report on Artharee's comments—he introduced her at a June 6 city equity event by saying, "Here's our beautiful commissioner, Loretta Smith... mmm, mmm, mmm... she looks good tonight"—leaves her feeling "as strongly today as I did when this incident happened."
Later, Smith's colleague on the county board, Deborah Kafoury, told KGW and the Oregonian she would have fired one of her staffers for the same offense. And City Commissioner Nick Fish immediately dubbed the suspension "too light," given that Hales had harsher options.
"Each of these cases sets a standard that all employees must follow. It's not just unique to one person. You're setting the bar for everyone else," Fish told the Mercury. "It's the signal we send to all the women who work in the city about the conduct that's permissible in the workplace."
Hales' spokesman, Dana Haynes, said the mayor wouldn't comment on Fish's stance.
But Hales' handling of the flap, first reported by Willamette Week, has been keenly watched by observers, and privately second-guessed, all along.
Hales learned of the comments the day after, when Artharee left Smith a voicemail with an apology. But Hales didn't personally apologize until the following week. He also waited to formally announce an investigation.
The mayor says he received the findings Friday, June 28, and personally presented them to Smith. But while Hales was mulling over his options over the weekend, more than two dozen Portlanders—including Kafoury and current and former lawmakers—sent the mayor a scathing email posted online even before his staff could read it. It was clearly an attempt to pressure Hales before any decision was public.
If the goal was to provoke a harsher punishment, Hales didn't bite—sticking close to the deliberate, measured governing style he's adopted thus far. Even though it risked upsetting allies.
Paul Gronke, a Reed College political science professor, says Hales "clearly" suffered some political damage, given the prominent names on the letter and the criticism from a colleague like Fish. He also says Hales, by moving slowly, hurt himself.
The honeymoon is over at this point," Gronke says."Now it's the next morning. People are asking 'What's the mayor going to be like?'"
Others suggest Hales will push past the criticism once it dies down.
"He's gone out of his way to establish he's not a shoot-from-the-hip mayor," says political analyst Len Bergstein. "I don't think this has done any deep harm to his relationships, unless there's a pattern."
The city's report explains in excruciating detail how Artharee blundered into trouble. Several witnesses confirmed his comments, with one, from the mayor's office, saying she told Artharee "don't go there." But no one substantiated a report that Artharee pumped his hips while talking.
That mattered for City Commissioner Steve Novick, who says he would have found that a fatal offense but otherwise didn't question Hales' decision.
Novick said his main takeaway was regret that he didn't speak up over another harassment case settled just before Hales took office: A former police captain, Todd Wyatt, was demoted for nonsexual but inappropriate touching and other offenses, even though a Police Review Board urged he be fired.
"In the case of Wyatt, where it was someone acting inappropriate to somebody under his supervision, that's a fireable offense," Novick says. "It's a great shame he was not fired."
Smith also relayed three other instances in which Artharee uncomfortably commented on her looks—in one case he complimented her red dress. That could have added to his punishment. But the report said it could only substantiate two and that only one of those happened while Artharee was clearly representing the city. Artharee explained that he regularly compliments African American women because of the way history has treated them.
But the city's policy says it only matters that the victim is offended. And, in this case, she was. Smith also reported Artharee for describing himself, later at the June 6 event, as a "field negro." Smith found that disturbing, though no other witnesses did. They said it was a culturally contextual way for Artharee to say he wouldn't "sell out" while working for Hales.
Jo Ann Hardesty, a former state legislator working with the Albina Ministerial Alliance (AMA) Coalition for Justice and Police Reform, says she's known Artharee for decades and that the investigation "certainly did cause some divisions" among African Americans.
She says she was relieved the punishment wasn't more severe—so that Artharee can continue his work in the mayor's office, and with the AMA, on federal police reform negotiations.
"This is Baruti," Hardesty told the Mercury. "He gives me a big hug, tells me how good I look. And I don't take offense to that at all.... What Baruti didn't understand—and understands very clearly now—is that every time he opens his mouth, he's speaking on behalf of the mayor."