Civic Life director gets $176k to leave embattled Portland bureau

Civic Affairs

Suk Rhee's severance package included $176,464 payment other benefits

PMG File Photo of Suk Rhee

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

PORTLAND, Ore. (Portland Tribune) — Controversial Portland bureau manager Suk Rhee received a severance package that included a $176,464 payment and other benefits when she left the Office of Community & Civic Life on Friday, May 14.

Current and former employees of the bureau accused Rhee of creating a toxic work environment in a third-party review released on Tuesday, May 18.

The review confirmed reports of 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 review conducted by the ASCETA  consulting firm recommended Rhee be terminated and three other managers be terminated and removed from their positions.

Rhee and the other managers 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 Rhee on May 6 and by Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, who oversees the bureau, on May 6.

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 rights to sue the city and agreed to not apply for a city job for at least three years.

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. 

Commissioner Jo Ann 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.

It is unclear what happens next. When Rhee resigned, Hardesty said she would be talking with the bureau 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 review 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.

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 finished and provided to Hardesty 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.

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.

After reading the assessment, Leistner said, “The ASCETA report showcases, in painful detail, the shocking extent of abusive and incompetent leadership and management at Portland’s Office of Community and Civic Life over the past few years.

“The report highlights the complete failure of the City Council and Bureau of Human Resources to provide meaningful oversight as all this was happening. Thank goodness the City Ombudsman showed sorely needed courage and leadership in December 2019 when she first raised concerns about the extensive problems at Civic Life.

“The Civic Life fiasco lays bare serious flaws in our commission form of government. City commissioners often have little background in the work of the bureaus assigned to them. They and their staff usually have little or no experience managing large organizations. Yet, our governance system gives them nearly total control of the bureaus assigned to them with nearly no professional guidance or oversight. It’s time to replace this antiquated and flawed form of government.”

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.”

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

Twitter News Widget

Trending Stories