THIS MUCH won't surprise anyone paying attention in recent weeks. Two of our local governments, Portland and Multnomah County, have endured the fallout from scandals raising difficult questions about gender bias and privilege.
Most recently, County Chairman Jeff Cogen admitted sleeping with a health policy advisor, Sonia Manhas, only a few clicks down the chain of command. Cogen's colleagues put him under investigation and demanded he resign. He refused—even as Manhas quit with a notably weak severance agreement.
Before that, Mayor Charlie Hales' public safety director, Baruti Artharee, was suspended for a week after making suggestive comments about County Commissioner Loretta Smith at an event. Artharee claimed he never meant any harm, but he was rapped on the knuckles anyway.
In both cases, observers have argued that the sanctions, so far, have been inadequate. Cogen, though being probed, is free to work and dare voters to recall him. Artharee's punishment, given his role in standing in for the mayor, was seen by many as too easy.
What's interesting, though, is that there was a time—in Portland's history, at least—when both cases might have gone all but unpunished. In fact, in one case with echoes of both scandals, that's exactly what happened.
How come? Because up until some recent changes to the city's harassment policy, it was permissible to have consensual sexual contact with a fellow employee. You also could successfully claim, if that was in doubt, you didn't mean to harass the victim.
Let's look at the record—chiefly, a 2011 arbitration ruling obtained through a public records request.
In 2009, Portland's parks bureau tried to hand a three-week suspension to a male employee accused of kissing a coworker and grabbing her breasts. It was a shocking allegation. But it was also a weird case, and the male employee's union filed a grievance on his behalf.
The man admitted he was "touchy feely," but said they'd been talking about her breasts and that she "literally" initiated contact. The woman also didn't come forward for a couple of years.
In the end, arbitrator Joseph Duffy wound up wiping out the suspension. Duffy ruled the contact was likely consensual—and that, no matter what, it didn't show "hostility," a key requirement in the city's harassment policyat the time.
But for two reasons, that could have been the end of things. The female employee, whom the Mercury is choosing not to identify, sued the city over the lack of discipline and settled for $25,000. And someone in city hall took notice.
Commissioner Nick Fish, the parks commissioner and a former labor lawyer, was incensed. He decided to change the policy so that kind of ruling would never happen again. The latest version says no physical contact between workers is allowed. Ever. And "intent" is explicitly denied as a defense.
"I believe strongly in policing gender discrimination in the workplace," Fish told me after I noted his name, though redacted, appeared in the arbitrator's report. "We ought to have some bright lines."
We didn't then. Now we do. Something Artharee found out the hard way.