County study tackles institutional racism
Multnomah County government will remake the way it handles hiring, training, personnel investigations and promotions to improve diversity, under a consultant's recommendations unveiled Oct. 30.
The report, which will was presented to the county Board of Commissioners, was prepared in response to controversy over the ouster last year of Tricia Tillman, an African-American manager in the health department.
Formulated by the California-based consultant Jemmott Rollins Group under a $150,000 contract, the report advocates for major changes in how the county promotes racial and ethnic equity and diversity.
"I'm proud of it," said Marissa Madrigal, the county's Chief Operating Officer, who worked closely with the consultant as it formulated the recommendations. "I think we got what we asked for. Don't just tell us we need to eliminate structural racism; we know that. Help us with the how."
The changes include:
•Beef up the Office of Diversity and Equity so it can hold department directors accountable for goals and outcomes sought under the county's existing equity strategic plan.
•The diversity office will review all manager hires and promotions to ensure equity and diversity were properly considered, with its comments and analysis to be made a part of the department's personnel record.
•The diversity office will review proposed firings, including of probationary employees, and also conduct exit interviews with terminated employees and "voluntary" terminations, meaning resignations.
•Increased training for managers to promote understanding and better communication.
•Department directors will be monitored and held accountable for their department's performance in diversifying their employee and manager ranks.
•A new, separate unit of investigators under the county Chief Operation Officer to look into complaints of discrimination.
Madrigal said that her impression is some cities already employ similar methods, but some of the recommendations are specific to Multnomah County.
The report was not an external, independent review, so acceptance of the recommendations is likely. Subcommittees of county employees and managers worked with the consultants, and "they provided sets of recommendations to the consultant," Madrigal said. "The consultant melded that with the conversations that they had outside the committee that we were not a part of, and then provided their recommendations."
Report began with ouster
The report has its genesis with the ouster of Tillman, then the county's public health director, in the fall of 2017.
On the brink of a county board meeting to discuss the county's new equity strategic plan, Tillman sent a letter to the county that called for in-depth investigation of a "pattern and practice" of "systemic" racism in county government.
The letter prompted a firestorm of reaction at the ensuing board meeting and calls for an independent investigation of Tillman's treatment.
Madrigal and her boss, Chair Deborah Kafoury, at the time promised an outside investigation. Madrigal said the Tillman case would be a "case study" examined by the consultant.
But the county's settlement with Tillman, amounting to more than a year of salary, prohibited that sort of review, Madrigal said on Friday.
"This report is really about 6,000 people and what we can do to improve their conditions at work," Madrigal said. "I think they did their homework. They weren't afraid to talk to people who would be critical of us."
Separately, records disclosed by the county last fall showed Tillman had been the subject of complaints of mismanagement from her subordinates, some of whom were African-American. But it was unclear to what extent she was informed of the complaints and given clear direction how to address the concerns prior to her ouster.
Tillman, reached on Friday, said the consultant initially had set an appointment with her but she had a conflict arise. Now a manager for the state of Oregon, she said she didn't hear back from the consultant to reschedule. She said she had not seen the report and could not comment on it.
Following the Tillman controversy, Kafoury announced that all discrimination complaints in the county would be overseen by Madrigal. So to an extent, the new consultant recommendations will make that permanent, even setting up a unit of trained, independent investigators.
Madrigal, who is supposed to oversee the county's bureaucracy anyway, said involvement in that over the last year has been an eye-opening experience.
"This has allowed me to get a line of sight across the organization. If you get a lot of complaints it's usually an indicator of other things going on. So that's been useful," she said. "But it's been really heartbreaking, too. I'm a Latina and the daughter of an immigrant. We've had some cases that felt like my family story was reflected in what they were experiencing. And that's sad, but it also provides that really meaningful motivation to get it right."
Kafoury, for her part, said the recommendations are not quite final, but her administration will consider them a plan to follow.
Kafoury said the board will have to sign off on a budget that allows the different recommendations to proceed, such as hiring two staffers to beef up the office of diversity. "That's the piece that's going to be a board decision, the funding," she said.