Did mayor short-circuit investigation of Civic Life?
Questions linger as different commissioner
assesses the troubled bureau
Mayor Ted Wheeler could have known the consequences had he given the Office of Community & Civic Life to Mingus Mapps, who was fired from Civic Life in 2019 and ran for City Council on a platform to reform the bureau.
Mapps was outspoken about his intention to clean house at Civic Life, which he expected would be assigned to him.
Instead, Wheeler appointed Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, who had not requested the bureau and was surprised to get it.
Hardesty told the NW Examiner last month that she does not yet know what changes may be needed, including whether to retain Director Suk Rhee.
“I’ve made no decisions one way or another,” Hardesty said. “I just got the bureau 10 days ago.”
Did Wheeler hand Civic Life to Hardesty to scuttle the shakeup Mapps had in mind?
Predictably, Wheeler’s staff brushed off the implication.
“The assignment of the OCCL, and all other bureaus, leverages commissioners’ talents and skills to ensure all commissioners are working collaboratively and with urgency toward a more just, resilient future,” wrote mayoral spokesperson Tim Becker.
But three bureaus controlled by Wheeler worked furtively last year to head off an independent investigation of Civic Life management in response to an “unprecedented” number of employee grievances. City Ombudsman Margie Sollinger apologized to employees who came forward after the City Attorney’s office, the Bureau of Human Resources and the Office of Management and Finance subverted the investigation Sollinger was about to announce last August:
“The city agreed to our recommendation and had been working to secure a third-party to conduct the review. Unfortunately, late last week I learned that the review has not been designed as I expected and its purpose has changed to the point that I don’t believe it will be responsive to the many allegations you raised.
“Rather than being employee-centered, it instead appears to be intended as a tool to help management achieve the organization’s goals.
“Given what I’ve heard from many of you, I am skeptical that Civic Life can succeed in transformative organizational change without first undertaking a process to redress all of the harm done, including holding accountable anyone found to have engaged in unethical, improper or other misconduct.”
The three bureaus that turned the investigation into a management tool each pointed to other parties as responsible when questioned by the Examiner last year. Asceta LLC, a Portland firm selected by former Civic Life Commissioner Chloe Eudaly, has sent a questionnaire to employees. There is still no word on when the report, earlier announced to wrap up this month, will be completed.
If the mayor’s office was either guiding or tolerating the machinations necessary to turn the targets of an investigation into its beneficiaries (if not its controllers), why would Wheeler not go to the same place in his selection of the commissioner in charge of Civic Life? The appointment leaves no fingerprints: No explanations or justifications are required when bureau assignments are handed out, and no controversies over the Civic Life assignment have surfaced in the news media.
Although Hardesty and Eudaly were often allies on council and Hardesty supports the goals of greater diversity and inclusion in the city’s citizen engagement program, the new commissioner of Civic Life disapproved of the way those goals were pursued. That process was widely panned for holding public hearings on transformational changes to the city code governing the purpose of the bureau without notifying the city’s neighborhood associations.
Eudaly conceded the mistake after a trusted community leader, Kathleen Saadat, advised her that greater inclusion of marginalized people could not be achieved “by intimidating, ignoring and discouraging one group in order to establish or expand another.”
At a City Council hearing in 2019 on changes in City Code 3.96, Hardesty drew a red line.
“I won’t support anything that divides our community any further,” she said. “How do we build power together?”
Still, Hardesty wants to make her own assessment of Civic Life and its director. She noted that the $127,000 Asceta contract is being managed by the City Attorney’s Office, which gives her confidence in its independence.
She confirmed that she had heard some employees feared retribution and therefore have been reluctant to reveal their thoughts regarding working conditions. She plans to work with the employee’s union and hold an all-staff meeting to help form her own opinion of the situation.
Even before her diagnosis is complete, one thing is clear to her about Civic Life: “It should run a lot better.”