Complaint over public funding for transgender training stalls after Marion County leaders skip meeting

A complaint stemming from two Marion County commissioners’ move to defund training for therapists who work with transgender people is no closer to a resolution one month later.

Commissioner Colm Willis, the target of the complaint, wrote in emails this week to fellow board members of the Behavioral Care Network that the complaint against him was illegitimate.

Then, a board meeting slated Thursday to consider the complaint was cancelled hours before its scheduled start – after Marion County representatives declared they wouldn’t attend, depriving the board a quorum.

Willis declined to comment.

The complaint originated at the Behavioral Care Network’s May 21 meeting, when Willis moved to stop funding the trainings. He later told Salem Reporter he worried the therapists may advocate for gender reassignment surgery in children.

According to meeting minutes, Willis raised his concerns as a “policy issue.” He said the board was mandated by the Oregon Health Plan to provide treatment — but that’s different than trainings and conferences.

“We are the policy makers for this organization so I think, what I would do is to make a motion not to provide this training through us,” he said, according to the minutes. “If (Oregon Health Authority) wants to, they can.”

Minutes from that meeting show the board’s budget committee had recently ended talks for the board’s $31 million budget by the time Willis made his motion. The budget had not yet been adopted, according to the minutes.

Still, the motion was backed by Commissioner Sam Brentano and “blindsided” other board members, they said. The vote ultimately failed, with Willis and Brentano the only members to vote for defunding.

Board member Jackie Haddon, director of Valley Mental Health, a Salem behavioral health clinic, then filed a complaint against Willis and said his actions violated non-discrimination policies for county commissioners. She said he should be removed from the board.

READ: Marion County commissioners moved to block money for transgender training for professionals, triggering complaint

Earlier this week, Willis maintained his motion was a budget matter, according to emails obtained by Salem Reporter. He said he hoped to see a staff brief on the trainings that was discussed in the May 21 meeting before the vote.

“I would like to request that this issue brief be on the agenda and presented at Thursday’s meeting,” he wrote in a Tuesday email.

The following day, Polk County Commissioner Craig Pope, who chairs the board, responded that the brief was never promised — it was offered as an alternative to voting on a motion that caught other board members by surprise. He then noted the motion failed.

“Please take time to sit down with (staff) to better understand the training in question. This is an operational objective at this point and now not a matter of budget concern as you have expressed to the press,” Pope wrote.

Then, hours before the Thursday meeting, Willis once again said he hoped to talk about the trainings as a budget matter.

“I would like to clarify that the issue of these conferences or trainings is a matter of budget concern,” Willis wrote. “The number, nature, and cost of these trainings and conferences have not been presented to the board … for discussion.”

“If more time is needed to prepare this material for discussion, I would request that we place it on the agenda for our next (board) meeting,” he wrote.

Willis then took umbrage with Haddon’s complaint. In the same email, he said she publicly mischaracterized his intentions and that her push to remove him from the board violates the board’s bylaws that require Polk and Marion County commissioners to serve.

“I respect Ms. Haddon’s opinions and her right to express them. I request an apology from Ms. Haddon, and a commitment from her that she will show the same respect to me,” Willis wrote.

Willis ended his email by stating that no Marion County representatives would attend the meeting.

“As a result, quorum will not be present,” Willis wrote. The meeting was cancelled an hour later.

According to the organization’s site, Marion County’s representatives would have been WIllis and Chief Administrative Officer John Lattimer, who retired after 16 years on Friday.

The board’s bylaws don’t document how to investigate or pursue complaints about board members, Pope told Salem Reporter on Friday. However, he said he expects to put the complaint on the agenda for the August meeting.

“We’re required to, under our rules, under general ethics, to investigate a complaint of discrimination,” he said. “My intention is to try again.”

When reached by phone, Haddon said she does respect Willis’ right to express his opinion.

“I do not respect his actions to discriminate against transgender individuals we serve,” she said. “I hope he will respect this process and be more inclined to attend the next meeting so we can have a hearing of my complaint.”

Have a tip? Contact reporter Troy Brynelson at 503-575-9930, [email protected] or @TroyWB.

Clarification July 2, 2019: This article has been updated to clarify that budget committee had ended its discussions of the Behavioral Care Network’s $31 million budget. The executive committee had not yet adopted the budget.