Magistrate inflamed harassment controversy with apology

Published 6:24 am Saturday, December 14, 2019


The Advocate-Messenger

If Boyle County Magistrate Jason Cullen was really hoping to bring an end to the controversy over fellow Magistrate Phil Sammons’ comments about a woman’s legs back in September, he probably should’ve picked a different way to do it.

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This week, Cullen offered a heart-felt, honest apology to Sammons for all that his friend has “gone through” since the Sept. 10 incident. Sammons was joking around with Danville Mayor Mike Perros during a fiscal court meeting that day, when he made a comment about the attractiveness of tourism director Jennifer Kirchner’s legs that got several people in the room laughing. It surprised and embarrassed Kirchner, who was attempting to present her organization’s annual tax rate, when people began laughing at her about her body.

Since then, there have been multiple statements from Sammons and county officials expressing regret over what was said and how things played out in the meeting. Kirchner has filed a sexual harassment complaint with the county, asking for Sammons to resign — and, more importantly Kirchner says, asking for the county to create a policy for handling future harassment complaints, since one apparently does not exist now.

It’s no doubt been a long two months for everyone involved, which is what Cullen tried to get at Monday with his apology to Sammons.

“I would think at this point, we’re having to suffer a lot; you’re having to suffer a lot. And I really am sorry for all you’re going through,” Cullen said to Sammons. 

He talked about how Sammons and his family have had to contend with criticism and publicity following the incident. Later in his comments, Cullen added again: “… in the season of what we’re in, sorry you’ve had to go through this.”

But Cullen’s words reopened wounds, rather than helping them heal. In the midst of a simmering controversy, when the person who was hurt and her supporters still clearly feel wronged, he chose to offer a very public apology to the offender. From a victim’s perspective, it’s hard not to see that as anything but a provocation or an insult; and it seems to make it clear that county officials are still completely missing the point.

Cullen also didn’t help because he gave Sammons exactly the kind of apology that Kirchner has likely been looking for all along and deserves.

Cullen apologized the right way. He made his apology about the person being apologized to, not his own ego. He expressed empathy for the challenges the person has faced and how they were made to feel. He made his statements directly to the affected person. And he didn’t qualify that apology or offer any kind of excuse.

But he delivered it to the wrong person.

Kirchner has yet to hear any apology as honest and empathetic directed toward her.

“I’m sorry that you took that compliment wrong” is a passive-aggressive “apology” Sammons left Kirchner after the incident in a voicemail, which Kirchner included in her harassment complaint.

Judge-Executive Howard Hunt issued a statement that “I … neither agree with nor embrace the comments” made by Sammons, but made no apology to Kirchner for how she was treated or made to feel during a public meeting of the fiscal court.

“I understand my actions have caused embarrassment and for this I offer my apology, not only to the community, but to the fiscal court as well.” Sammons wrote in a letter to the editor.

Sammons commented again two weeks after the incident, calling his comments “regrettable” and “stupid.”

“I’m very sorry for that,” he said. “I’ll always hate that comment.”

There’s been a lot of apologizing over the last two months, so we’re not surprised the apologizers are getting tired of it and want to move on. But none of the apologies expressed compassion for or understanding of Kirchner’s feelings; they were all delivered as necessary statements of regret intended to appease. That’s why they’ve apparently been unsatisfying for the person wronged and her supporters.

What will ultimately bring this matter to rest is Boyle County approving a new harassment reporting policy, which is in the works. That action will speak much louder than all of the debatable apologies issued so far combined.

But perhaps if Sammons had ever apologized to Kirchner the way Cullen apologized to Sammons this week, the whole process could have gone a lot smoother and friendlier, as Boyle officials say they wish it would.