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Regional Interests

City agreed to pay disgraced bureau director’s 1 year salary in exchange for resignation

The city of Portland agreed to pay the disgraced former head of the civic life bureau one year’s salary in return for her resignation.

Suk Rhee received a little over $178,000 to resign, according to a targeted severance agreement obtained by OPB.

The agreement was approved May 12 — one day after the District Attorney ordered the city to make a report public that revealed widespread dysfunction within the bureau. 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.

It’s clear the agreement was in the works before the DA’s order, however. Rhee signed it May 6. She officially resigned May 14.

Hardesty’s office had received the report earlier this spring.

It’s common for bureau directors to be offered money in exchange for a quiet resignation. Amalia Alarcón de Morris, the bureau head before Rhee, received $143,811 to resign, Willamette Week reported at the time.

But what is more unusual is the degree of turmoil Rhee left in her wake. An independent report released Tuesday on the bureau found a toxic workplace culture plagued the bureau. The report pinned the blame on five employees — including Rhee.

“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.

Bureau directors are considered “at-will employees” and the commissioner-in-charge can fire them without cause — and without a payout. But agreements like these help the city avoid litigation.

Per the agreement, Rhee can not sue the city for any reason related to her employment.

“If Suk Rhee ever asserts any claim, action or suit against the City or against any City’s commissioners, officers, bureaus, employees, agents, insurers, or their successors, arising out of or in connection with Suk Rhee’s employment with the City or resignation from employment provided by this Agreement, the City may plead this Agreement as an absolute defense to any such claim, action or suit,” the agreement states.

Rhee could not be reached for comment.

Aside from Hardesty, who oversees the bureau, only one commissioner has commented publicly on the report since its publication. As part of the deep dive into the dysfunction within the bureau, the report singles out five employees who allegedly fueled the toxic workplace. The report names Rhee, two managers, and two lower-level employees.

On Wednesday, Commissioner Mingus Mapps said in a statement that he had “a heavy heart for the employees who suffered at the hands of incompetent and abusive managers.”

Mapps, himself, worked at the civic life bureau before he was fired by one of the managers named in the report. He oversaw the crime prevention program in the city and has said he was fired because he refused to follow orders to discipline an employee.

“While I found most frontline staff had that same vision of service to the public, I also found work culture so toxic, as to forcibly hamstringing staff’s continuous efforts to support and engage the public meaningfully,” said Mapps in a statement.

“It is beyond alarming that as a City we allowed staff and the public to suffer for so long with no action taken,” he continued. “... 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.”

The mayor has yet to comment on the report.

Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting