With stunning and perfunctory speed, four Multnomah County commissioners this morning formally asked Chair Jeff Cogen to step down in the wake of his affair with health policy manager Sonia Manhas.
But Cogen, in confident comments that mark his first truly public statements on the scandal that's stained his menschy image, said he would refuse to step down before an independent investigation of his conduct concludes. He cast the lone no vote on a resolution that needed unanimity to take effect.
"I deserve a chance for the facts to come out and the people deserve it, too," Cogen said, when it was his turn to remark. "I don't understand the rush to judgment."
That investigation, also sought by Loretta Smith, Judy Shiprack, Deborah Kafoury, and Diane McKeel, was announced only yesterday, hours after Manhas was made to quit the county and hours before she joined the call for Cogen to resign, calling the disparity unfair. It's looking into whether Cogen broke state law in using county resources to further his affair, and it joins a county probe into whether Cogen broke county rules. Cogen agreed it was a good idea.
Cogen admitted he made "mistakes, big ones," and he apologized for the harm he caused his own family, Manhas' family, and the county. But he blamed the media for stirring up "accusations, innuendo, and judgment."
"I supported that call for an independent investigation and I still do. I've agreed to cooperate fully. I believe the investigation will find no abuse of power. But why call for an investigation without letting it begin?"
Before he spoke, two of his colleagues gave lengthy statements of their own. Deborah Kafoury said the decision "saddens me deeply" because it concerns a friend, but said the scandal was a "distraction" that "needed to end."
"The position we find ourselves in today is not about him personally," she said. "It is about the ability of Multnomah County to move forward."
Loretta Smith, in carefully measured words, said the choice was the biggest of her political career. But the low morale at the county and the "cloud of suspicion, doubt, and anger that faces us daily" was too much.
"None of us is bigger than the work of the people," she said.
Update 11 AM: It's worth noting that McKeel spoke after public testimony, supporting the vote and talking of "leadership." But Shiprack, who voted yes and submitted the resolution for consideration, was notably quiet. Perhaps she felt the language of the resolution stood on its own.///
Meanwhile, 19 of the first 21 people who got up to speak at the hearing all lavished praise on Cogen's professional work and defended his choice to wait for findings, even as some said they were disappointed by what he and Manhas did. Most were men, but five were women. Many of them clearly were friends and associates, however, joining Cogen's family in the room. Talk was of Cogen's "kindness" and how "talented" he was. The two men who argued against Cogen staying hailed from city hall's camping protest.
Most said the scandal shouldn't tarnish Cogen's legacy. Some heaped scorn on the commissioners, calling them the "new Mean Girls." Some blamed the media. The implication in some comments was that some commissioners were gunning for Cogen's job, though they'd have to quit their current posts to do so and potentially wait months before any election.
Ed Hershey, whose family attends the same synagogue of Cogen's, said, "the Brooklyn in me can still sense when people are piling on."
A member of the county's food policy council who worked with both Cogen and Manhas defended their integrity and work. Food policy was a particular passion of Manhas'.
"They were both working really hard on behalf of the residents of Multnomah County," he said. "I'm disappointed with the stereotypical narrative that's being placed on that. I really don't believe there's gross corruption here."
TJ Browning, a longtime police accountability activist who told me she'd never met Cogen before, highlighted the county's solid budget and the magical touch Cogen employed, along with Ted Wheeler, in soothing what had been a tense and dysfunctional county government.
"This is a diversion. This is beneath public policy," she said. "Please wait until the facts are in. I will come and testify at that time, if the facts bear out. And I will change my position. But at this point I see no reason to do that."
A coordinator at the SUN after-school program at Buckman Elementary School spoke fawningly over Cogen's work in wrangling a budget deal with Mayor Charlie Hales that saved funding for that SUN program and another. She said it would be a blow to both governments if he left.
"We cannot afford such a devastating loss at this time," she said. "We need you in public policy and we need you in Portland."
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