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La Grande Mayor Daniel Pokorney (seated) looks on as Eastern Oregon University President Bob Davies opens a forum Monday on Pokorney’s controversial, anti-gay Facebook posts. The forum drew about 150 people, and most who offered comments were critical of the mayor. Pokorney apologized for the episode, and said he hadn’t meant to be hurtful but wanted to express himself on important issues. BILL RAUTENSTRAUCH / The Observer
La Grande Mayor Daniel Pokorney stood up in front of a crowd of about 150 people Monday and did a difficult thing. He admitted he was wrong. And he said he was sorry.
Pokorney weathered heavy criticism the last several days after posting a couple of anti-gay comments on his personal Facebook page, including one calling same-sex unions an “abomination.”
His remarks drew more than 180 Facebook comments, mostly negative, from people in Union County and across the nation.
With outrage mounting, he agreed to meet his local critics in a forum Monday in Huber Auditorium on the Eastern Oregon University campus.
Facing a crowd dominated by college students, he wasted neither time nor words defending himself.
“I sincerely apologize for my choice of words in the two Facebook posts last week. My choice of words was harmful and hurtful,” he said. “I don’t hate anyone. My intent was not to be hurtful, but to express myself on important issues. I understand there is a right way and a wrong way to address the issues.”
In one of his Facebook posts, Pokorney called Washington state the “latest state to transition to Sodom and Gomorrah,” and in another, he criticized New Jersey for continuing what he called the “abomination of same sex unions.”
Much of the subsequent outcry came from members of Eastern Oregon University’s Gay-Straight Alliance.
Letters, emails and calls went to City Hall and to The Observer, many critical of Pokorney, and some calling for his resignation.
On Monday, EOU President Bob Davies issued an open letter, saying students had asked for a meeting with the mayor, and that Pokorney had agreed.
“This is an opportunity to hear differing perspectives, and allows for continued learning about living in a community where people hold diverse ideas and opinions,” Davies said.
As the forum got under way at Huber, Davies urged civility, as did Megan Baker, the president of the Gay-Straight Alliance.
“I want to hear both sides of the story before I come to judgment,” Baker said.
Josh Barber of Eastern’s Art League echoed her comment.
“The main point is to be heard from both sides. This isn’t about gay marriage or gay rights, it’s about what’s happening in La Grande,” Barber said.
For almost an hour, Pokorney sat and listened as students and others trooped to microphones and gave their opinions. Though restraint was the order of the day, nearly all of the comments were critical of the mayor, and some of them were harsh.
“I was very offended and sorry to see our city was being represented in such a hateful light,” said a woman who identified herself as a former EOU student.
The word “hate” cropped up several times as the meeting progressed. One woman branded Pokorney’s comments “hate speech” and said the issues go beyond same-sex unions.
“I think this is about civil rights more than it is about gay rights or gay marriage,” she said.
Though no one defended the mayor’s comments, a couple of people did defend his right to make them. Most others, though, said they thought it was inappropriate for an elected official to speak out in such a manner.
“I appreciate the apology, but when I look at the mayor of La Grande, I see the representation of La Grande,” said student Michael Cooper. “If I work for a bank and go out and state my opinions in the street, I know I’m representing my company.”
Pokorney listened to all the comments in silence, and as the session neared its end, he made a few more remarks. He said the episode was a learning experience for him, and a chance to change.
“I’m going to do my best to do that,” he said. “I would never do anything to intentionally bring a bad light to our city. I apologize for my choice of words and thank you for a great discussion.”