A few years back, the Portland City Council created a new agency, the Office of Equity and Human Rights. Its mission statement is to provide "education and technical support to City staff and elected officials, leading to recognition and removal of systemic barriers to fair and just distribution of resources, access and opportunity, starting with issues of race and disability."
I had a vaguely good feeling about the Office of Equity when the Council created it -- it's nice to see our elected officials take seriously the problems and effects of racial discrimination -- but it seemed odd to me, and still does, that the mayor and councilors thought it necessary to form an agency to remind them not to discriminate against racial minorities and the disabled.
The Office of Equity may have its first challenge. Jack Graham, formerly the City's finance chief, has announced his intention to sue the City for discriminating against him on account of his race (he is black) and Commissioners Nick Fish, Amanda Fritz, and Steve Novick for remarks they made in connection with his performance. To oversimplify the heart of Mr. Graham's complaint, he believes that he was terminated as finance director for proposing improper transfers between one City fund and another, in response to direction from then-Mayor Sam Adams, when white finance managers who had actually completed a similar transfer from one fund to another were not disciplined, but continued to work for the City. The important sentences from the letter that Mr. Graham's lawyer sent to the City Attorney:
At the conclusion of the investigation [by an outside law firm the City hired], which erroneously concluded that Mr. Graham attempted to transfer Water and BES funds to the General Fund, the City and individual City Commissioners publicly communicated false, stigmatizing, and professionally damaging statements without first offering him a name clearing hearing. Even more shocking, Commissioners Fritz and Novick made false and signatizing statements about Mr. Graham to the media without even having read the investigation findings. In contrast the City turned a blind eye when white financial managers completed a comparable transfer in 2011 and did not make public statements impugning those managers' ethics or professional competency. [You can read the entire letter here, in PDF, courtesy of Willamette Week.]
It's a conundrum for the City. If the councilors believe that they have done nothing wrong, then they can't justly pay more than a pittance to settle Mr. Graham's claim. And if they do agree to pay more than a nominal amount to settle his claim, then they are admitting that Commissioners Fish, Fritz, and Novick need some training from the Office of Equity that they voted to create.