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PORTLAND, Ore. (Portland Tribune) — Portland officials are refusing to release a third-party audit of the Office of Community & Civic Life. Former employees and several news organizations are accusing the City Attorney’s Office of violating Oregon’s public record laws to withhold information about a bureau that has been accused of historic mismanagement.
“Allowing the City Attorney to withhold this important review of the behavior at Civic Life serves, not justice for the people victimized, but rather to help the City prevent community members from understanding the full extent of the governance and management failures in City government,” said Paul Leistner, a former employee who now is now a senior fellow at the PSU Center for Public Service at the Hatfield School of Government.
The audit was begun last year after numerous employees complained about personnel problems to the Bureau of Human Resources and City Ombudsman Margie Sollinger. The audit was conducted by the ASCETA consulting firm and is now finished.
The City Attorney’s Office has turned down public records requests for the audit from Leistner and several other people and news organizations, including the Portland Tribune. The office argues the audit is exempt from disclosure because of attorney-client privilege.
Some of the people and news organization have appealed the denial to the Multnomah County District Attorney, as provided by Oregon’s public records laws. They include OPB and Willamette Week.
The City Attorney’s Office responded to OPB’s appeal with a nine-page “Confidential Submission” dated April 12, 2021. It said that Senior Deputy City Attorney Lory Kraut retained the consulting firm at or around the time of the complaints to the ombudsman to conduct an assessment for the purpose of providing legal advice.
The submission said 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 the submission obtained by the Portland Tribune.
“The assessment was the necessary, foundational precursor for me to provide informed legal advice. I viewed the complaints as symptoms, but I needed to understand the underlying issues before I could identify potential options and evaluate the risk and potential liability associated with those strategies,” wrote Kraut.
It is not immediately clear what information was redacted in the submission and why.
Oregon Public Broadcasting filed an 18-page response on April 30. It argued the firm was retained to conduct an operation analysis of the office, not provide background for legal advice.
“As an initial matter, we disagree with the City’s framing of the issue. The issue in this case is whether a public body can avoid its responsibilities for transparency under the Public Records Act (“PRA”) by having its attorney hire a consulting firm to perform a wholistic analysis of the
workplace culture of one of its bureaus and then use that report to guide business decisions,” wrote OPB Deputy General Counsel Jon Bial.
The response said Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, who is now in charge of the office, told OPB reporter Rebecca Ellis that the audit would help her better understand the culture of the office so that she can make recommendations on how to transform it. Ellis has reported extensively on problems with the office over the past few months.
“None of these statements discuss litigation, liability, or any legal matters. Commissioner Hardesty intends to use the report for business purposes only. If the intent of the audit were to address legal matters, Commissioner Hardesty could have said, ‘I can’t comment on pending legal matters,'” Bial wrote.
The district attorney’s office does not know when it will issue a ruling, according to spokesman Brent Weisberg.