Multnomah report finds no racism in ouster of Tricia Tillman
Multnomah County has issued the results of its internal inquiry into the controversial ouster of a prominent African-American manager, Tricia Tillman, including documents in which her subordinates repeatedly question her leadership.
The county forced Tillman, then the county public health director, out of her management role and placed her on leave in August. The treatment of the popular, well-known leader sparked controversy after a Sept. 7 letter she wrote to the board went public. It noted she had received good performance reviews and called for an in-depth investigation into what she called a "pattern and practice" of institutional racism that has victimized African-American leaders at the county.
However, on Monday evening the county released a summary letter dated Sept. 25, by county Human Resources Director Travis Graves, saying documents and interviews show no evidence that Tillman was discriminated against.
The documents, released under a Portland Tribune records request, show that a personnel manager documented concerns about Tillman's management, including that subordinates accused her micro-managing, changing directions and bypassing other managers in a way that created "chaos."
The documents released span 125 pages and include hand-written notes by the personnel manager, Holly Calhoun, as well as text messages between Tillman and Calhoun, and various emails. Because many names have been redacted, it's hard to tell whether many of the complaints are coming from a single manager who worked under Tillman, or if others chimed in.
The extent to which Calhoun or Fuller, the Health Department Director, confronted Tillman candidly with her purported management deficiencies is also unclear. In one note, it says that in April 2017, concerns were shared with Tillman and "she is not taking in the feedback, really believes it is a few people who do not want to change."
In his Sept. 25 letter, Graves wrote that "While Ms. Tillman excelled at many aspects of her position, most notably her public health and equity expertise and building partnership with other jurisdiction and community organizations, she struggled in other aspects of leading a large and complex organization."
Graves added: "The record shows that both subordinate managers and Health Human Resources began receiving a number of complaints concerning Ms. Tillman's management of the organization beginning over a year ago. Ms. Tillman received feedback regarding her performance from multiple sources from her direct supervisor, from human resources, from peers, her direct reports and at least one outside consultant."
Tillman: complaints never shared
In response to Graves' letter, Tillman issued a statement through her attorney, Dana Sullivan.
"I'm going to follow Michelle Obama's approach — when they go low, we go high. No one benefits if the focus of the dialogue remains on me and whether people who worked with me made complaints that were never shared with me by my supervisor. My excellent performance is documented in my evaluations and the letter of reference that Chair Kafoury provided to me. Instead, the community and the county alike should focus on the bigger issues that caused so many to speak publicly about their painful experiences in the recent hearing."
Tillman's statement referred to a Sept. 14 board hearing on workforce equity at which several county employees said they had experienced racism, prompting Chair Deborah Kafoury to announce a consultant's review. Kafoury also announced a change in how such complaints are handled, elevating them to the highest levels of the county.
Graves' review of the Tillman ouster is just more proof of problems, argues Commissioner Loretta Smith. Smith, who is African-American, has accused the county of institutional racism in the past.
"This appears to be a one-sided process focused on justifying the previous actions of the human resources bureaucracy. And the end result is the manager of color is the one left having been smeared in the media and, more importantly, in the public's eye," Smith said in a statement Tuesday.
Tone changed over six weeks
In her letter, Tillman expressed surprise at her treatment.
In April 2017, Tillman took family leave to care for her mother, who suffers from Stage 4 lung cancer. Tillman returned to the county on July 5 and asked for her performance review, she wrote in her letter. In response, Fuller "told me that a review would not be necessary, as she said they are perfunctory and she would take care of it so that my increases could take effect," Tillman wrote.
But in a meeting on Aug. 18, Tillman wrote, Fuller informed her she would be demoted and allowed a "graceful" exit after two to three months — but could not remain at the county. Two subordinates had said they could not work with her, according to Tillman.
Fuller, a 29-year employee of the county, abruptly retired on Monday, giving no reason. The move came about one business day after news broke that Tillman had received a settlement worth roughly $165,000.
Performance reviews disclosed in response to a Tribune records request and later shared with other media show that Tillman was praised for her work at the six-month and 18-month marks of her tenure after leaving the state for the county in January 2015.
The June 27, 2016, review signed by Fuller credited Tillman's leadership for a variety of successes by the department. "Tricia has a wonderful calming style that helps people focus on the work at hand. She is very supportive of her people and clear with them about expectations and results. I am very pleased with her work and the work of the public health division this year."
Responsibilities had grown
It's true that when Tillman joined the county in January 2015, she had a massive jump in responsibility.
In her previous job at the Oregon Health Authority, she headed a staff of 27 and a $4 million annual budget in the agency's Office of Equity and Inclusion.
In January 2015, she returned to the county as director of its Public Health Division, with a dramatically greater variety of responsibilities and a tenfold increase in staff. She oversees 280 employees and a roughly $50 million budget. Among other things, her division includes tobacco prevention, inspections of restaurants and other facilities licensed by the county, mosquito control, maternal health programs, disease prevention and response to communicable disease outbreaks.
In the documents released by the county on Tuesday, it appears Graves sought input on Tillman from staffers on Sept. 11, four days after Tillman's letter. In those, it appears that her staff had started complaining during a major reorganization of the health department in mid-2015.
Notes from a conversation with Holly Calhoun, a personnel manager within the health department, said that Calhoun warned Tillman repeatedly of the need to improve things, sometimes in a direct manner, and that Fuller and her subordinates communicated with Tillman, too.
"From Holly's perspective, the majority of employee complaints came from employees of color," said the notes.