Former Civic Life insider tells all
Conduct of Commissioner Eudaly and director called ‘unconscionable’
By Allan Classen
For 15 years, Paul Leistner was the brains inside the Portland Office of Neighborhood Involvement, the person who knew neighborhood activists across the city and helped write and then apply the rules governing the system.
He wrote the most comprehensive history of Portland’s pioneering neighborhood system, “The Dynamics of Creating Strong Democracy in Portland, Oregon,” as his doctoral thesis in 2013.
The new regime that took over the Office of Neighborhood Involvement under Commissioner Chloe Eudaly in 2017 had no use for that history or for Leistner, who was first demoted and then had his position eliminated in 2018, severing the office’s tie to its institutional past. The agency was renamed Office of Community and Civic Life that year as its mission flipped from nurturing neighborhood associations to open hostility toward them.
Leistner held his peace for two years. He realized he could be labeled as a disgruntled former employee, and he could see no political will to resist the new direction.
But finally, he had enough. The city’s short-sheeting of complaints of abuse and mismanagement from about one-third of the department’s staff as well as the subverting of an agency-wide investigation recommended by the city ombudsman preceded his “tell all” interview with the NW Examiner last month.
The election, for one.
“There are deep, deep serious problems in the Office of Civic Life,” he said. “The only solution is a new commissioner who cares about community involvement and a director who truly believes in and has the wisdom and skills to bring together Portland’s many different community and neighborhood interests. That is not at all what we have now.”
Eudaly is running against Mingus Mapps, a former Civic Life employee fired because he would not carry out what he considered an unethical order to reprimand a blameless co-worker.
“I have been stewing on this for over two years,” Leistner said. “I am just so angry. To have two people destroy what this community has created in a 45-year process is unconscionable.”
Eudaly dismissed the former agency director and hired Suk Rhee to run the program soon after taking office.
“There was no meaningful public input in hiring by an agency that is supposed to be modeling [good practices] for other departments of the city,” Leistner said.
“Suk Rhee came into the job with clear preconceived ideas about the existing system but with little knowledge of—but clear disdain for—the work that was being done,” Leistner said.
“She often stated that whatever had been done in the past clearly was not working. At the same time, she made little effort to understand the basic principles of effective community engagement, what works and doesn’t work, and the internationally recognized work that the community and ONI staff had developed over many years.
“With no input from staff and almost none from the community, she changed the entire program. She has a strange sense of her own brilliance and that only she can solve these problems. Everything she has done is top down; everyone who disagrees with her is forced out. She reminds me so much of Trump.”
The disparaging simile has been applied to both Rhee and Eudaly, an irony in that they place themselves on the far left of the political spectrum. Both espouse racial diversity and characterize neighborhood associations as the redoubt of wealthy old white men.
But inside Civic Life, those losing their jobs were disproportionately people of color, Leistner said.
The same charge has been made by Mapps and three other former Civic Life employees, Mark Wells, Geri Jimenez and Sabina Urdes, who said nine people cycled out of her six-person section for various reasons in her six months with the agency and that most of those fired were people of color.
Leistner and other top staff told Rhee that “diversity goals were part of the strategic plan” adopted long before Eudaly and Rhee arrived. The city auditor concluded as much in her critical 2016 audit of the agency. There was no need to tear things down and start over; reconvening a panel to update the strategic plan would have fulfilled the auditor’s recommendation while respecting current activists and partners.
“We told her that over and over again,” Leistner said. “They threw out all of our ideas.”
Their advice did not fit Rhee’s approach.
“Suk doesn’t want to convene the community,” he said. “She comes down from Mount Sinai with her tablet of goals. She wants all to get on board with her solutions.”
Those with contrary ideas “needed to be destroyed,” he said.
The disrespect did not stop with individuals. Eudaly and Rhee saw neighborhood associations as the problem.
“They thought the neighborhood system needed to be done away with,” Leistner said. “They came in with the idea that this is a terrible system. They were bashing the neighborhood system from day one with no real knowledge.”
“They wanted us to say the neighborhoods are poison,” Jimenez added, “that they’re racist and they need to go away. We wouldn’t deliver that message because we didn’t believe it.”
Eudaly and Rhee repeatedly denied reports that they were dismantling the neighborhood system, discounting them as outlandish.
But at the 2018 City Council hearing at which the agency’s name was changed to eliminate reference to neighborhoods, Eudaly tipped her hand.
“I do not intend to burn down the neighborhood system,” she said, “though the more it was suggested the more I thought maybe that wasn’t such a bad idea.”
Leistner said that attitude corrupted the agency at all levels.
“The culture of the bureau has shifted away from supporting staff with strong community engagement skills and experience to retaining people who are loyal to Suk Rhee even if they have little knowledge or experience in doing this kind of work,” he said.
Leistner and Jimenez, the other neighborhood program coordinator, were not fired. Jimenez said her supervisor threatened to “P4 you.” Jimenez didn’t know what that meant but in time learned it was a standard ploy to dispose of unwanted workers. Their positions were phased out and new ones created for which they would be unsuited.
“It was so clear the agency did not want us,” Leistner said, so both chose to walk away.
Jimenez filed a complaint with the city Bureau of Human Resources in 2018. The investigation went no further than Rhee. Jimenez was shocked to learn later that HR considered Rhee the final authority on whether employee complaints in her department were valid.
Other complaints to HR from Civic Life workers kept piling up without action until the grievants began conversing with the ombudsman, who is part of the city auditor’s office.
“Because of the unusual volume and nature of complaints from Civic Life employees, and because other avenues of redress had been attempted and were unsuccessful,” Ombudsman Margie Sollinger wrote to the Examiner, “rather than merely refer folks elsewhere, I opted to formally recommend that the city hire a third party to conduct a workplace investigation.”
“I shared this recommendation with Human Resources, the City Attorney’s Office and Commissioner Eudaly’s office. Whether an investigation of this nature occurs is up to Commissioner Eudaly.”
Eudaly selected ASCETA, a business management consulting firm operating from an upstairs office at 522 NW 23rd Ave. in a no-bid process.
That process does not meet Leistner’s smell test: “The people being investigated should not be able to control the investigation.”
Jimenez warns current Civic Life employees against opening up to ASCETA interviewers.
“Absolutely not,” she said. “They absolutely should not do that. That’s what we did when we went to HR.”
Jimenez’s 12-year career in the agency and that of Leistner, who supported her, ended soon after, and she has no hesitancy in connecting the dots.
Editor’s note: Attempts to reach Eudaly and Rhee or their spokespersons were unsuccessful.
Consultant largely a mystery
The Office of Community and Civic Life has selected ASCETA, a Portland consulting firm, to conduct a “holistic assessment” of the bureau in a $127,000 no-bid contract.
What makes this firm uniquely qualified, the city’s standard for avoiding a bidding process?
We were unable to reach anyone with ASCETA, but Heather Hafer of the city Office of Management and Finance said it was selected “because of its skill, experience and expertise doing assessments and helping organizations through challenges.”
ASCETA LLC was founded in 2008 by Sophia Tzeng, according to its website, but it was not registered with the state of Oregon Corporate Division until 2014. In 2019, Tzeng listed herself as the president and secretary of a parallel company, ASCETA Services LLC at 410 NW 18th Ave., Apartment 302. This year, she moved both companies to a duplex in North Portland. For less than a year, the firms had an office at 522 NW 23rd Ave., Unit H.
Tzeng referred questions about her company’s qualifications and the contract to the city attorney’s office.
According to state of Oregon records:
In 2015, Tzeng listed her business activity as “consulting, management and communications.”
In 2016, she described it as “social design consultancy and project incubator.”
In 2018, that was amended to “strategic design consultancy and project incubator.”
In 2019, that was changed to “strategic design consultancy and impact incubator.”
Attempts to reach the company by phone connected to a cell phone with a recorded greeting from “Zackary” with no further identifier. A number listed online for Tzeng had a greeting from “Sophia” with no further identification.
City Commissioner Chloe Eudaly, who selected Tzeng’s firm, did not reply to requests to describe ASCETA’s unique capacities or possible past dealings with Tzeng.
A Google search for Tzeng produced a 2013 Oregonlive story about her term as executive director of Essential Health Clinic, a free urgent care facility in Hillsboro that went bankrupt and disbanded in 2013.
Tzeng doubled her salary from that of the previous director and added administrative staff in a bold growth plan that failed to meet operating expenses, according to the story. In January 2013, she left the clinic and in March it closed.
“I don’t believe Essential Health Clinic had to close,” said Tzeng, standing by her plans. “I do not take any responsibility for what happened in that last quarter.”