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Regional Interests

‘I just need to get out’: Report pins blame for civic life bureau dysfunction on 5 employees, in

“Civic Life management is toxic. This bureau will not heal, unless that toxicity from the so called ‘leadership team’ is eliminated … You can’t clean a floor with a dirty mop”

“There are people saying, “I’m sick. I’m getting sick. I can’t sleep at night. I am a nervous wreck. I have anxiety. I can’t eat. I just need to get out.”

“Why would I go to HR when I’m afraid of taking heat rounds in my chest? And I have no place to go if I lose my job. So why the hell would I get HR? Because HR may offer me some protection. But it’s not going to stop the shit that I would have to put up with on a minute by minute basis sitting in that corner.”

“Management has not been held accountable for their destruction and belittling of employees and have allowed those in power to reduce and subject employees who they target to degradation and treating them like animals.”

These are but a few of the dozens of equally scathing statements made by staff from Portland’s Office of Community & Civic Life that were included in a report on the bureau’s culture released on Tuesday.

The city was forced to turn over the independent report after Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt ruled last week that the city could not withhold the report from the public by claiming attorney-client privilege. The city had previously denied a public records request for the report, prompting OPB to appeal along with Willamette Week, the NW Examiner and a former civic life employee.

The report is blistering. Released with no redactions, it paints a picture of deep dysfunction and toxicity within the city bureau responsible for civic engagement in Portland.

The assessment pins the blame for much of the widespread dysfunction on five employees — including former bureau director Suk Rhee.

Rhee was brought into the bureau in 2017 by former Commissioner Chloe Eudaly. After Eudaly lost her re-election bid, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler assigned the bureau to Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, who has been in charge since January.

Rhee announced her resignation last week in a joint statement with Hardesty — two days after the District Attorney ordered the city to make the report public.

According to the report, a majority of employees interviewed believed Rhee created a hostile work environment and was not fit to lead the bureau any longer.

“Most interviewees and survey participants felt the bureau cannot move forward with Suk as a director citing her lack of concern for employee experience, bullying behavior and hierarchical and condescending style of leadership,” the report states.

The assessment was carried out over an eight-month period between August 2020 and March 2021 by strategic design consultancy firm ASCETA. At least three-fifths of civic life employees participated in a survey on the bureau. This does not take into account those who participated anonymously. The report stated that many current and former employees did not want to weigh in due to: “distrust of the process ..., fear of retaliation, too much personal trauma in retelling and a sense of uselessness in the process.”

The report also included the perspective of 12 former employees, four current city directors and three current and former commissioners. The report noted that all bureau leaders and some employees supported Rhee’s vision for the bureau.

The review was launched last year at the request of the city ombudsman, who said she was being flooded with employee complaints that “defy categorization.” OPB reported in March about what staffers described as a “culture of fear” within the bureau, with staffers filing at least four complaints with human resources, 11 union grievances and an estimated 20 complaints with the city’s ombudsman.

The ASCETA report backed up OPB’s findings from this spring. The report’s authors discovered an “in group” within the civic life bureau that was highly satisfied and a larger outgroup that felt isolated and fearful. While some employees were satisfied with the workplace, most reported “a high degree of stress and trauma” from their experience, according to the report.

“Fear of retaliation, and the regular experience of pain and harm, prevents many employees from speaking open or sharing,” the report stated.

In a separate report, ASCETA dove deeper into the conduct of five specific employees, revealing a stunning amount of personnel information. The 24-pages contain a long list of cutting complaints, the bulk of them made against Rhee and Meg Juarez, a supervisor in the city’s crime prevention program.

The section on Rhee includes allegations of nepotism in hiring, bullying behavior and sexism. One respondent said they needed to get men on the leadership team to propose ideas as Rhee would be more agreeable when it was a man who was doing the asking. Another said that they felt Rhee, who had come to the city from Portland charity Northwest Health Foundation, treated the bureau more like a private company than a city agency.

“Her .. mindset was too much like, ‘This is my own private nonprofit or my own foundation, and I can do with it what I want, as opposed to like, ‘This is a city government bureau that I have to follow all the rules and standards and the ways that the city works,’” said one person who identified as BIPOC.

In past interviews with OPB, Rhee had strongly denied allegations of abusive management.

“We have growing pain. We have transition. We have actual reform and transformation going on,” she said. “Do I feel that there’s any abuse going on by supervisors in this process? Absolutely not.”

Neither Rhee nor Juarez could be reached for comment.

Juarez was met with the second-largest deluge of complaints with staff alleging they were treated like children, yelled at and retaliated against. According to the report, two-thirds of the nine-person crime prevention staff said they felt they could not move forward with Juarez as a supervisor.

Juarez was responsible for the firing of Commissioner Mingus Mapps when he was a staff member at civic life. Mapps briefly oversaw the crime prevention program before being fired after a half-year on the job. He has said it was because he refused to follow orders to discipline an employee working under him since he didn’t think the punishment was deserved.

According to the report, several staff members felt Juarez targeted female staffers of color and rejected their time off requests. One member said they had asked for a mediator to step in, but was told, “it will never happen.”

“We need a lot of help emotionally. We have needed to go to counseling, losing sleep, depression,” said another member who also identified as BIPOC.

The report names one other manager and two lower-level staff who, like Rhee and Juarez, had had “repetitive complaints” filed against them.

“These employees were identified as contributing to continual creation of a hostile working environment especially for protected classes, including but not limited to trauma (BIPOC, women, veterans, seniors),” the report states.

According to the report, four of these five employees had been interviewed and felt they themselves had been “targeted, bullied, disrespected and not supported.” Some felt the allegations of bullying were racially motivated.

ASCETA proposes a few possible courses of action for the city to take with the five employees, including firing Rhee.

The report included select quotes from interviews, surveys, and emails — but did not attribute them to any specific staffers.

While there were a handful of employees who expressed positive feelings about the direction of the bureau and expressed support for management, the overwhelming majority of the report contained negative remarks. The respondents expressed feelings of humiliation, intimidation, and a constant fear, especially among older employees, that their job was at risk.

“I feel lateral oppression,” said one respondent. “POC oppress POC.”

“[I was repeatedly told] that the bureau needed fresh blood, that there sure were a lot of people around here who’d been around for a very long time,” stated another. “So it’s sort of had this vibe to it of age discrimination, which felt really icky.”

The report also dove into some of the structural problems that had fueled internal dysfunction within the bureau.

Many lamented that the bureau, which is home to several distinctly different programs, was seen as the “kitchen sink” or “junk drawer” of the city. Among other programs, the office houses programs to deal with noise complaints, regulate cannabis shops and liquor stores, and clean graffiti. It also oversees funding for the city’s network of 95 neighborhood associations, which are responsible for promoting civic engagement.

Others put some of the blame on the city’s human resources department, which they allege failed to adequately respond to their cries of a bureau in severe distress. Many said they believe human resources existed primarily to protect management.

“Filing a complaint or grievance is no small act for an employee. It is a stressful, uncomfortable process in itself,” said one respondent. “Then, to have it go completely unanswered and to see absolutely no accountability is demoralizing.”

Since receiving the report earlier this spring, Hardesty’s office had kept it close to the chest. No other council member had received the report as of Tuesday afternoon — including the mayor.

In a Zoom meeting Tuesday morning, Hardesty told staff she had shown parts of the report to the staff members who were named, according to two staff members present. She also asked them not to talk to reporters, according to these staffers.

The report makes a series of recommendations on how to move forward and “pivot culture” within the workplace. It notes many employees did not want to think too far into the future “due to the depth, longevity and potential of personal trauma and harm they experience in their employment at Civic Life.”

One of these immediate actions that the report authors recommend the city take is public responsibility for the harm inflicted on employees. It recommended the mayor and council provide a “systemic acknowledgment” of prior harm.

At the time the report was released, no commissioner’s office had commented on the report, aside from Hardesty.

Hardesty wrote in a statement that she was disappointed the report had been publicly released but emphasized the bureau was entering a new chapter.

“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,” she wrote.

“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,” Hardesty continued. “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.”

She said she will not be commenting further on personnel decisions.

At least one respondent said they felt this rebuilding process would only work if managers were held accountable.

“If there is not accountability for the abuse managers put their employees through these past few years, then this entire process has been nothing but a waste of taxpayer money,” the staff member said. “Real action needs to happen or this process is not real.”

Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting