An existing manager is appointed as the interim director of the embattled Portland bureau after a scathing third-party review.

COURTESY PHOTO: CITY OF PORTLAND - Office of Community & Civic Life Interim Director Michael MontoyaCommissioner Jo Ann Hardesty believes it will take a year to reorganize the embattled Office of Community & Civic Life.

A scathing third-party review of the bureau released on Tuesday, May 18, accused Director Suk Rhee and four other managers of creating a toxic work environment. Rhee resigned on Friday, May 14, after receiving a $176,464 severance package.

Hardesty appointed Michael Montoya, the bureau's strategy, innovation & performance manager, as interim director on Thursday, May 20.

In the announcement, Hardesty said, "The Office of Community and Civic Life will require what I believe will be a year of change transformation and healing. I believe Michael Montoya is the leader for the moment to help us navigate this difficult time — but that ultimately we will come out of this work a stronger, more resilient and more responsive bureau. I look forward to working with Michael during this time and to support him in the work ahead. Our community and our employees at Civic Life require us to rise to the challenge of this moment."

Montoya was not one of the managers criticized in the review. The announcement described him as "a well-rounded and deeply experienced community practitioner, manager and scholar with more than 20 years of experience designing and implementing equity-based service programs and policies."

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 assessment conducted by the ASCETA consulting firm confirmed employee complaints going back years. They include accusations of a 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 assessment was completed in March. It recommended Rhee be terminated and four other managers either be terminated or reassigned from their positions. They were interviewed for the assessment but their responses were not included for confidentiality reasons.

Details of the severance package were obtained by the Portland Tribune through a public records request. It was signed by Rhree on May 6 and by Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, who oversees the bureau, on May 12.

The payment is one year's salary. Additional benefits include a payment for accrued vacation time and six months of payments to continue medical benefits. No values for those benefits were included in the agreement.

By signing the agreement, Rhee gave up any right to sue the city and agreed to not apply for a city job for at least three years. Such agreements are not unusual. Amalia Alarcón de Morris, the bureau head before Rhee, received $143,811 to resign, Willamette Week reported at the time.

The City Attorney's Office had tried to prevent the release of the ASCETA review by arguing it was protected by attorney-client privilege. That argument was rejected by Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt.

Hardesty, who was assigned the bureau in January, issued a statement hours before the scheduled release of the review that said she intends to streamline the bureau, but will not comment on its 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.

The review recommended a comprehensive process to reorganize the bureau that includes the City Council acknowledging the harm caused to its employees, pivoting its culture and resetting its management. It would take a year to complete, the review said.

The announcement of Montoya's appointment said such work would be undertaken before a permanent director is appointed, and that some of it will apparently be contracted for.

"A recruitment process will not begin until significant work has been accomplished as part of an overall strategic planning and change process. That work was identified as part of the organizational assessment done by the consulting firm ASCETA and will be done in consultation with the Commissioner, Interim Director Montoya and the assistance of additional support from consulting services through a Request For Proposal process," the announcement said.

Commissioner Mingus Mapps worked for the bureau before defeating Commissioner Chloe Eudaly, who was in charge of it, at the November 2020 election. Before the announcement, he told the Portland Tribune, "The ASCETA report lays out the depth and breadth of the dysfunction within Civic Life. I have a heavy heart for the employees who suffered at the hands of incompetent and abusive managers. It is beyond alarming that as a city we allowed staff and the public to suffer for so long with no action taken.

"If we desire to attract the best and brightest into our workforce, we need to ensure the physical and psychological safety of our staff to bring their best selves to work. We owe it to our employees and the public to do better and get the management change right."

The review can be found here.

Separate personnel recommendations can be found here.

A previous Portland Tribune story on the issue can be read here.

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