School board member who resigned BES job says city ignored his depression

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Portland Public Schools board member Mike Rosen resigned July 1 as Watershed Division Manager with the city of Portland.

Portland Public Schools board member Mike Rosen is not one to mince words or shy away from media coverage.

So it was surprising when he went on leave from his job as Watershed Division Manager at the city of Portland’s Bureau of Environmental Services May 8 and stopped returning calls from the media just prior to his May 19 election. Rosen maintained his silence outside of prepared remarks even into his first public appearance — the July 6 swearing-in ceremony for the board.

In an exclusive interview with the Portland Tribune, Rosen finally opens up to announce a new project and talk about why he resigned from his 12-year career with the city on July 1.

“People think I disappeared because I did something wrong,” he says. “I didn’t have the mental capacity to talk about it. But now I do, and I’m happy to talk about how people with depression are abused in the workplace.”

Rosen says he has been in treatment for major depression for 23 years and he had an episode during those two months triggered by the culmination of years-long city scrutiny into his management and communication style.

“After an exhaustive, ridiculous, intimidating investigation, I collapsed,” he says, blaming “the lazy culture of the city that does not encourage or appreciate dissent and punishes you for it.”

Indeed, in dozens of documents from Rosen’s personnel file released by Rosen himself and the city, a picture emerges of a middle manager who often disagreed openly with his colleagues and supervisors. In a Performance Improvement Plan begun June 1, 2014, his immediate supervisor, Watershed Services Group Manager Jane Bacchieri, wrote monthly memos reminding Rosen to communicate in a positive manner and to be supportive of his staff of 33.

But what is hard to pin down in the written he-said-she-said is how severe Rosen’s reactions were. In a previously unreleased draft separation agreement, the city offered $500 and a promise not to talk about Rosen’s employment other than to say that he never engaged in nor threatened physical violence nor used vulgar language in the workplace. Rosen refused to sign the agreement.

BES Director Mike Jordan, who started June 1 and was not directly involved in the Rosen affair, says a settlement offer of $500 indicates the city felt it was in the right. (In contrast, Jordan’s predecessor, Dean Marriott, received a settlement of about $250,000, including attorney’s fees, after {obj:9155} over change orders that led to Marriott threatening a harassment lawsuit.)

“Where you see those big numbers, generally speaking, an organization feels like there’s risk there,” Jordan says.

A draft of the settlement agreement shows Rosen refusing any money from the city at all.

“I’m glad I’m gone,” he says. “It was a toxic relationship.”

‘More than just anger’

Since Rosen did not sign the agreement, the city is free to release much of his personnel file.

Bacchieri writes that the problems began in 2011, with four employees having complained to her about Rosen’s demeanor since then — Linda Dobson, Mary Stephens, Kaitlin Lovell and Maggie Skenderian.

Senior Manager Lovell’s complaint regarding a May 29, 2013, incident involving the tree budget says Rosen was physically intimidating.

“I mean, it was anger, but it was more than just anger. ... It was amplified to a point that I had not experienced with him,” reads Lovell’s testimony in a written reprimand report signed by Bacchieri on Oct. 2, 2013. Bacchieri writes she believed Lovell’s version of events because of her own experience with and past complaints of Rosen’s manner.

“The events described in Kaitlin’s complaint and your dissembling about them have cast doubt on your professionalism and your integrity, both of which are essential to effectiveness as a manager,” she wrote to Rosen in the reprimand.

“The more I objected, the more I was vilified,” counters Rosen, arguing that his only viable defense to the accusations was “sign the piece of paper that says you’re guilty and you won’t do it again.”

As a government manager, Rosen was under civil service protection — similar to academic tenure — and received a salary of $115,149 last year. His main efforts were focused on a five-year project, the Watershed Health Index and Report Cards, which were unveiled on Earth Day, April 22, to the City Council. He says the moment the project was finished, the city ratcheted up its efforts to terminate his employment.

“It was an awful, expensive experience,” Rosen says of weeks of negotiations for the separation agreement promising not to release the negative personnel records in exchange for a promise not to sue the city, nor seek employment with the city in even a third-party capacity.

It was this last stipulation that broke down the negotiations.

“That’s when we said forget it,” Rosen says. The work he does with the school board would likely count, as would any future projects, such as the NW Ecoliteracy Collaborative project (see: NW Ecoliteracy Collaborative aims to teach children sustainability).

Accommodation negotiations

Commissioner Nick Fish, who oversees the Bureau of Environmental Services, declined to refute Rosen’s allegations and directed further questions to Human Resources.

“We’re not going to engage him,” Fish says.

Deputy City Attorney Heidi Brown declined to talk specifically about Rosen’s case but says the city is in a tricky spot when it comes to accommodating people with mental health issues.

“It’s really dependent on what the person’s needs are and what realistically we can and can’t do,” Brown says. “So if somebody is saying, ‘Well, I need to be able to yell and scream at my subordinates,’ that’s not something we’re going to be able to accommodate. But if it’s ‘I need to be able to take a five-minute break,’ that may be something we can do.”

Brown says they did engage Rosen in federally mandated accommodation negotiations, but declined to state their outcome.

Director Jordan says the negotiations were still in process when Rosen quit and that the bureau’s intent was not to get rid of him.

“The goal is to get improved performance and alleviate the issues,” Jordan says. “That’s our goal.”

But on June 10, Jordan signed a draft dismissal letter for Rosen.

Rosen also produced a copy of a letter the city gave him denying his accommodation requests two days before they put him on administrative leave.

He had requested that feedback about his work performance be prompt and that his manager allow him to respond to complaints.

Jordan says it takes a long time to resolve complaints.

“We’re required to go through an investigative process,” he says. “We have a lot of folks’ rights to keep in mind, not only the accused, but the accusers. We have to try and balance everybody’s interests.”

Disability Rights Oregon Executive Director Bob Joondeph declined to comment on whether or not the city of Portland has a poor track record of accommodating people with mental illness, as did Executive Director Chris Bouneff of the Oregon chapter of the National Alliance of Mental Illness.

Speaking generally, Bouneff says it can be difficult for employers to parse out objectionable behavior from mental illness but that mental health accommodations are just as important as physical health accommodations.

“It’s not easy,” he says. “What you want is an employer who’s open to working with you.”

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Portland Public Schools board member Mike Rosen says the city of Portland triggered his chronic depression through its Performance Improvement Plan process.

Link between work, depression

But Rosen, who says he has suffered chronic depression for two decades, also says his first request to the city for accommodation was in February — years after the interpersonal problems became part of his personnel file.

Rosen says this was because his depression didn’t affect his work at the city until the repeated investigations into his alleged conduct triggered his symptoms.

In addition to the 2013 Lovell complaint, Rosen received a written reprimand May 6for incompetence, discourteous or offensive conduct and insubordination. Bacchieri complained that on Feb. 5, Rosen sent an email message to his staff saying that he would be out for the week after Bacchieri told him not to conduct any city business.

Rosen also declined two meetings. For a performance review, he wanted to change the title and location of the meeting, “because it sounded a lot better if someone was looking at my calendar,” according to Bacchieri’s report. He also declined a weekly meeting when there was a conflict with another work meeting.

Rosen had his city expense card taken away in February after spending $569 on a dinner for more than 50 people for Community Watershed Stewardship at the Mekong Bistro without prior approval from the director. Emails show the dinner had been paid for through the City of Portland Office of Equity in previous years.

Bacchieri objected to the way he cut up the card and left it on her desk in a Ziploc bag when she asked for it back, as it was city property.

“This is what you do to someone who has civil service protection. You just hound them,” Rosen says.

Rosen uses blunt language in conversational tones to express his desire that the city “get its shit together” in accommodating people with mental illness.

“Do I think that they manipulated me through my illness? Yes. But, ultimately, it wasn’t something I could afford to pursue,” he says, noting the thousands of dollars in attorney’s fees he already has paid. “Am I going to sue them? No. Am I going to tell the public what happened? I’ve decided to. Against the advice of many people.”

He adds: “I hope something good comes out of it.”

Shasta Kearns Moore
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