The Portland Office of Community & Civic Life has severe, longrunning management problems that the City Council must acknowledge and resolve, according to a third-party assessment released on Tuesday, May 18.
The assessment confirmed reports of employee complaints going back years. They include a toxic and dysfunctional work culture, punitive management practices, social and emotional harm experienced by employees, a disconnect between the bureau's goals and its practices, and a lack of resources needed to carry out its responsibilities.
The review conducted by the ASCETA consulting firm recommended that the bureau be "reset" to align with the City Council's equity and other goals.
The assessment recommended that Director Suk Rhee and three other managers be terminated or removed from their positions. Rhee abruptly resigned on Friday, May 14, three days before the report was released.
"We heard throughout our process expressions of frustration, sadness and also hope based on the perception that, while mired in current challenges, Civic Life is uniquely positioned to play a key role in helping to solve the City of Portland's most urgent challenges with an equity lens," the report said.
The City Attorney's Office had tried to prevent the release of the review by arguing it was protected by attorney-client privilege. That argument was rejected by Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt.
Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, who was assigned the bureau in January, issued a statement hours before the scheduled release that said she intends to streamline the bureau, but will not comment on the review's personnel recommendations.
"After being assigned Civic Life in January, my office has conducted meetings with current and past employees, neighborhood associations, district coalitions and others so that I am best able to help lead this bureau out of turmoil. To do this, it is necessary that as a leader I am able to build trust — both with our community and employees. I believe that I will achieve this by rebuilding a bureau more streamlined for the work ahead and investing in building a leadership team that reflects the city's core values; I look forward to the work ahead," Hardesty said.
It is unclear what happens next. When Rhee resigned, Hardesty said she would be talking with the staff this week, but no interim or replacement director was immediately announced.
Bureau in turmoil
The bureau, formerly known as the Office of Neighborhood Involvement, has multiple responsibilities, ranging from assisting neighborhood association to operating the city's cannabis licensing program.
The release of the report capped a tumultuous week at City Hall. The review was released five days after Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt ruled it was a public record, perhaps prompting Rhee's resignation. She and the other managers were interviewed for the assessment but their responses were not included for confidentiality reasons.
The review began last year after numerous employees complained about personnel problems to the Bureau of Human Resources and City Ombudsman Margie Sollinger. The complaints ranged from bullying to unethical hiring and contracting processes, harassing and retaliatory behaviors, the inability of leadership to resolve problems, and a high rate of turnovers. They came from "Caucasians and people of color, employees with long seniority as well as relatively new employees, line employees and supervisory employees," according to a redacted version of a city attorney's office filing with the district attorney's office obtained by the Portland Tribune.
The review was conducted by the ASCETA consulting firm and was finished in March. But the City Attorney's Office refused to release it after several people and new organizations, including the Portland Tribune and the Southwest Community Connection, filed public records requests, claiming it was protected by attorney-client privilege.
Several of the people and news organizations appealed the denials to the district attorney's office, as allowed by Oregon Public Record laws. The included former employee Paul Leistner, Oregon Public Broadcasting, Willamette Week and the Northwest Examiner.
Schmidt ruled on Tuesday, May 11, that the review was not exempt from release. He said the city had not proven its claim the audit was protected by attorney-client privilege.
"The city has not met its burden of showing that the primary purpose, or even a substantial purpose, of this document is the facilitation of legal services. All indicators show it to be business, management, personnel, and public relations advice intended to guide the transformation of a struggling office. Such advice, and the fact finding underlying it, is not exempt from disclosure regardless of what label is placed on it," Schmidt wrote.
Public record fight awkward
The ruling put the city of Portland in an awkward position. It had seven days to decide whether to fight the release. Under state law, it would have had to sue Leistner and the three news organization in Multnomah County Circuit Court.
Hardesty issued a press release Tuesday morning saying the review would be released by the end of the business day. She insisted it was not an audit, although it had been widely reported as such, and said she was disappointed by Schmidt's ruling.
"This assessment is not an audit or performance evaluation of any individual and was intended to provide attorney client privileged information on personnel matters. Although I value the need for transparency in public spending and operations, and always intended to make available a public summary report, I am disappointed in the District Attorney's ruling as this makes publicly available what were intended to be confidential recommendations," Hardesty said.
Ombudsman Sollinger criticized the effort to withhold the review.
"I think it's pretty audacious to ask employees to candidly share their workplace experiences with a consultant and then refuse to share the consultant's findings with the employees," Sollinger said. "There may be aspects of the report that can be withheld under public records law exemptions, but the wholesale withholding is counter-productive to repairing what's broken within the bureau."
After reading the review, Northwest Examiner publisher Allan Classen, a frequent critic of the bureau, said, "I had heard about most of the problems at Civic Life before, but the depth of the mayhem revealed in the report still shocked me. The abuses of power were evident from the early days of the Suk Rhee regime. Still, elected officials who could have intervened never did.
"OCCL was a utopian experiment publicly cloaked as merely an effort to change with the times. Like most utopian systems, the leaders believed the righteousness of their vision justified the trampling of dissent and dissenters."
The assessment can be found here.
Separate personnel recommendations can be found here.
Schmidt's ruling can be read here.
A previous Portland Tribune story on the issue can be read here.
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