Kicking A Lion

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In the Hot Seat: Lisa Naito

Critical questions of people in the news

She received death threats for supporting gay marriage. She was tagged one of the “mean girls,” a moniker that could follow her for years.

Now, after 10 years as a Multnomah County commissioner, plus three terms in the Oregon Legislature and one on the Metro council, Lisa Naito is leaving public office.

An attorney with a passion for improving county mental health and children’s services, Naito spoke with the Portland Tribune several weeks before taking what she calls a sabbatical.


Portland Tribune: You and three women colleagues on the board of commissioners voted to legalize gay marriage with very little public notice or process, and it appeared that helped fuel a backlash that enabled Christian conservatives to gather signatures in record fashion to put the gay marriage ban on the ballot.

Lisa Naito: I disagree with your characterization in a couple ways. The first is we didn’t vote. Our attorneys interpreted it to be just an administrative matter for the chair to make, which she did.

We supported her in that. And that was based on the Oregon Constitution, which our attorneys, and our outside attorney, Charlie Hinkle, said was our direct duty under the Constitution to provide for equality under the Privileges and Immunities Act.

The second piece is that that backlash was already there. There were ballot measures that they were already gathering signatures for, to prevent gay marriage in our community, and there were 11 other ballot measures around the country at the same time that had the same goal.

Tribune: When county commissioners meet once or twice a week it’s common to see empty chairs. Why do you miss so many meetings, and how do you justify that to your constituents who pay you pretty good money to represent them there?

Naito: I don’t miss very many meetings. I’m often at conferences doing county work. I’ve been voting by phone, so my seat might be empty, but I think you’ll find that I have not missed very many meetings.

Tribune: You’ve been passionate about mental health programs, but now the county mental health system seems to be tattered. What should the county do now to repair the system that seems to be failing?

Naito: Well, the system’s been struggling for a long time for a lack of resources. But again I don’t agree with your statement that the system is tattered.

We had a real shocker this year with Cascadia, and the financial challenges that were faced by that nonprofit. And I think we’ve come through the changeover in trying to get those services to other nonprofit providers without a great impact on the client.

When I came into office, we didn’t have very many programs for people in the criminal justice system. And now we have mandated crisis-intervention training for the law enforcement officers. We have crisis response teams that have been enhanced, to help divert and protect people in a crisis situation when the police arrive.

We’ve made a lot of improvements and those aren’t written about in the press.

Tribune: That may be true, but the county auditor has said there were a lot of warning signs for the Cascadia situation in the past, about how the county was overseeing some of these mental health or human service contracts. Should you as the senior member of the board have been leading the charge, saying, ‘Let’s do something about this?’

Naito: We certainly should have been paying more attention. I think the director of human services who directs the contracting has a role to play there. Yeah, I do take some of the oversight responsibility, that I should have been asking those questions.

At the time, Cascadia seemed from my perception to be well-run and they were implementing a lot of the changes that I was seeking.

Tribune: You took a lot of flak for moving out of your district, and leaving Laurelhurst for the west side. At a time when candidates are being criticized for carpetbagging to run in various districts, should it be OK for someone to move out of a district they were elected to serve based on residency?

Naito: It was a personal choice. I was engaged to be married, and that didn’t happen, so I found another place, and my house had already been up for sale. I knew I was term-limited, and I tried to still be responsive to all the needs of my constituents and believe I have been.

Tribune: You’ll probably be forever tagged as one of the three “mean girls” on the board, as the relationship of the three of you (Naito, former Commissioner Serena Cruz and Commissioner Maria Rojo de Steffey) soured with your former ally, County Chairwoman Diane Linn.

Naito: As I’ve told one editor in the press, I’m not mean, and I’m not a girl. I’m a 50-plus-year-old woman who’s a former prosecutor, attorney, legislator, and so the naming of that and the use of that by the press has been hurtful, quite frankly, and has, I think, taken away from the work I’ve done, and reporting on the serious work and the serious issues that we deal with here at the county.

Tribune: As you look back on 10 years as a county commissioner, what do you see as your biggest accomplishments?

Naito: We’ve done a lot of work preventing child abuse and neglect. We have the model services in the country for downtown street youths. Long before the state, Multnomah County passed an ordinance preventing discrimination in the workplace, and in employment and housing, based on sexual orientation.

— Steve Law


Written by kickingalion

November 27, 2008 at 4:43 pm

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