Oregon City building official retires early amid investigation
This story has been updated
Oregon City is losing another senior employee with the expedited retirement of Mike Roberts as the city's building official at the end of 2021.
Within cities, building officials are powerful positions with some leeway for interpreting rules. Roberts served for nearly eight years in the top position for determining buildings' compliance with Oregon City codes, in some cases mandating new permit applications or condemnation when his team finds that structures are out of compliance.
Roberts, 58, said he was able to retire with full PERS benefits three months earlier than he had originally planned, and his plans to explore Southwestern America with his wife were sped along by the unexpectedly quick sale of their house in Gladstone.
"We're going to travel to see where we'd like to settle," he said. "We're trying to decide whether we'd like to remodel again or build another house, and where that would be."
Roberts started as an assistant building official in Bend in 1994 and later worked for Deschutes and Jefferson counties before his transition to OC. He said his decision to retire early had nothing to do with an ongoing investigation into his conduct. In October, OC HR Director Patrick Foiles told Roberts not to speak about the investigation with past or present city employees. Five OC employees have alleged that Roberts has harassed them and/or abused his power. These employees, who asked this newspaper and the city's HR department to protect their anonymity, first approached a department director regarding their concerns about Roberts in the fall of 2019. Oregon City policies call for an investigation when an employee believes that they have been subjected, or another individual has been subjected, to conduct prohibited by the city's non-discrimination and anti-harassment policy.
"I have not been contacted; that is a little bit of a surprise, but everyone's entitled to their opinion, I guess," Roberts said.
Subsequent verbal complaints in 2020 and August of 2021 were followed up by employee written complaints in September and October. It wasn't until after Dec. 17, when employees called city commissioners, that city management notified elected commissioners of the complaints and investigation into Roberts. City officials said that the notification of commissioners in this workplace-investigation case did not follow the city's general practice to keep information as confidential as possible to protect the integrity of the investigation.
Foiles and city management wanted to be clear that HR did not directly provide the media with written statements or information about the details of an investigation. Foiles asked for a copies of his own written statements leaked to this newspaper, which Pamplin Media Group declined to provide, in order to protect its anonymous sources as much as possible.
"The city keeps information confidential while an investigation is ongoing," Foiles said.
Roberts was allowed to continue working from home during the investigation, since the city was able to limit his physical access to city offices, as well as prohibit him from making changes to any employee's work duties or terms of employment since the launch of the investigation. Roberts' previous supervisor, Community Development Director Laura Terway, left the city this November — Aquilla Hurd-Ravich is now serving as interim development director — but HR encouraged Roberts' employees to report any concerns with management since October directly to HR.
Roberts said he didn't know the purpose of the investigation and had not been interviewed by the city investigator as of his last week of employment. Although it is up to the investigator to determine whom to interview, city officials expect that Roberts, as the accused person, will have the opportunity to respond to the evidence that has been gathered, which is generally regarded as a necessary step in a fair and thorough investigation.
Roberts said he suspected that the investigation had something to do with a perceived double standard over being allowed to work from home since the beginning of the pandemic. He said he had a kidney transplant in October 2019 and was back in the office for six weeks in early 2020, but now he has medical dispensation to stay home due to his preexisting condition and increased vulnerability to COVID-19.
"My doctor keeps saying that I can't go back to the office," he said. "There were one or two staff members who wanted to be full-time from home, and I don't have authority to allow that."
Roberts said his decision to retire early was partially influenced by his health, in the sense that he sees his position being remote as not in the best interest of the city.
"The Building Department needs a hands-on manager," he said.
During his time in OC, Roberts said he was proud of how he encouraged employees to advance their careers as part of the department. Tracy Turner started as a temporary office employee and is now a certified inspector, while Chris Long started as an office specialist and has worked his way up to inspector status.
"Oregon City has a really good crew, and if you look at the people who are there now, only two of them have previous building department experience," he said. "I'm going to miss a lot of people who I worked with here."
Roberts said among those he will miss is City Manager Tony Konkol.
"Tony's the one who hired me, and I have nothing but respect for him," Roberts said. "I told Tony this is my last gig, and I'm holding true to that, even though I've gotten several job offers since I made my announcement (on Dec. 21)."
Roberts also commended citizens for the passion and care they have for the community they live in.
"I have absolutely enjoyed and cherished my time in Oregon City," he said. "The one big thing I will miss moving forward in my life is how much people love their community here."
City officials say there's is no typical timeline for workplace investigations. Investigation timelines can depend on the nature, complexity and number of issues; schedules, availability and a number of other factors.
This story has been updated online on Dec. 29 from its original version to include more information about the complaints against Roberts and the timeline of the investigation. Additional comments from the HR department were added Dec. 30.
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