City Council apologizes for Civic Life mess

Multnomah County

The Portland mayor and commissioners send an email to all city employees admitting embattled agency needs to be reformed.

Portland City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, January 8, 2020 (KOIN)

The Portland Tribune and Pamplin Media Group’s papers are a KOIN 6 News media partner

PORTLAND, Ore. (PORTLAND TRIBUNE) — The City Council has apologized for allowing the Office of Community & Civic Life to have a dysfunctional and toxic work culture for too long.

The apology was made in a Friday, June 11, email to Civic Life and all other City of Portland employees. The email acknowledges the findings of an assessment by the ASCETA consulting firm that the City Attorney’s Office had tried to withhold.

“As part of the healing process — and as we reform the Office of Community & Civic Life — the City of Portland must take responsibility for allowing a dysfunctional and toxic work culture to continue unaddressed for so long. The City of Portland apologizes to current and former Civic Life employees for the environment of mistrust, fear, and polarization this has caused. It’s unacceptable and it will not continue under new leadership and this Portland City Council,” a portion of the email said.

The office, formerly known as the Office of Neighborhood Involvement, has multiple responsibilities, ranging from assisting neighborhood association to operating the city’s cannabis licensing program. It is overseen by Commissioner Jo Ann Hardersty, who believes it will take a year to complete the reoganization. That could include an interim “soft reorganization” followed by filling some vacant positions, although a new permanent director is not likely to be hired until after the final reorganization.

The assessment was released on May 18 after Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt ruled it was a public record not protected by attorney-client privilege. It concluded that four supervisors had contributed to creating a toxic work environment and should be terminated. The report did not include their responses for confidentially reasons. The problem existed when the office was overseen by former Commissioner Chloe Eudaly before Hardesty assumed control in January 2021.

Former office employee Paul Leistner welcomed the apologized. He was one of those who filed a public records request for the assessment and appealed its denial to Schmidt.

“I welcome the important step of the full City Council formally apologizing and taking responsibility for the terrible working conditions they allowed to occur for years at the City’s Office of Community and Civic Life under former director Suk Rhee and former City Commissioner Chloe Eudaly, This was a deep failure of oversight from the City Council and the City’s Human Resources Bureau. Let’s see what they do now to work with currrent and former employees and the community to heal the bureau and help repair the extensive damage Rhee and Eudaly caused to the many good community engagement programs that were in place before they took over,” said Leistner.

Since the assessment was released, Portland has paid three of the managers more than a combined $370,000 to leave city employment. The assessment cost $127,000, meaning the city has now paid half-a-million dollars to investigate and begin resolving management problems that had been reported for years.

Director Suk Rhee resigned on May 14 after receiving a $176,464 severance package. 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 office head before Rhee, received $143,811 to resign, Willamette Week reported at the time.

As first reported by Oregon Public Broadcasting, the other two managers who left after signing similar agreements were Meg Juarez, a supervisor in the city’s crime prevention program who was paid $93,496, and Dianne Riley, who was staffing the North and Northeast Portland neighborhood association coalition offices and was paid $101,897 to leave.

The fourth manager criticized in the assessment, Noise Control Officer Paul Van Orden, declined to resign, arguing that he was a whistleblower being retaliated against, OPB reported.

Hardesty appointed an existing office employee, Michael Montoya, as interim director on May 20. Before that, he was the bureau’s strategy, innovation & performance manager.

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.”

In a June 4 email to office employees, Montoya said,”Many of us are currently juggling several roles and some programs are without a supervisor. Therefore, we’re exploring the idea of having an interim bureau soft re-organization … Following this interim soft re-org step, we’ll undergo a recruitment, hiring, and onboarding effort to help alleviate the current capacity issues within our bureau.”

The upheaval came after Hardesty cut off funding to the Southwest Neighborhoods, Inc. neighborhood association coalition office and proposed to replace it with a Civic Life-run office with two city employees. The transition is going forward despite the SWNI board arguing the defunding decision is an example of the mismanagement cited in the assessment.

“Given the ASCETA audit findings and the dramatic impact on the Office of Community & Civic Life, including its abrupt change in leadership, we believe the City’s focus should be on dealing with that office’s internal operations and personnel management rather than reinventing the District Coalition model that has served southwest Portland’s residents well for over four decades,” the SWNI board wrote the City Council and City Auditor Mary Hull Caballero on May 26.

The following is the full council June 11 council email:

Dear Civic Life and all City Employees,

Recently a report was released from the consulting firm ASCETA, which conducted a deep review into the Office of Community & Civic Life’s work culture and provided recommendations for reforming the bureau moving forward. As part of the healing process — and as we reform the Office of Community & Civic Life — the City of Portland must take responsibility for allowing a dysfunctional and toxic work culture to continue unaddressed for so long. The City of Portland apologizes to current and former Civic Life employees for the environment of mistrust, fear, and polarization this has caused. It’s unacceptable and it will not continue under new leadership and this Portland City Council.

In the midst of this, employees still managed to do great work and provide great service in our communities. We want to recognize that good work and thank them for it.

It’s imperative that Civic Life is a mission-focused bureau and not viewed as a kitchen sink for City programs. It is imperative that City employees feel they have adequate resources and support when they bring forward workplace concerns. For far too many employees, this has not been the case. This transformation will take time. Working together as a City with the hard-working employees at Civic Life, we are optimistic about the future of providing community and neighborhood support and equitable processes throughout the bureau and City.

Thank you to everyone who participated in the ASCETA assessment. We acknowledge the courage it took to share your thoughts and experiences and appreciate your patience and involvement in the process, and look forward to working together in visioning the future work of the bureau.

Signed,

Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty
Commissioner Mingus Mapps
Commissioner Carmen Rubio
Commissioner Dan Ryan
Mayor Ted Wheeler

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