The civil war at Civic Life
June 2021 Editorial
I have written more stories and editorials about the sorry saga at the Office of Community and Civic Life and its former director, Suk Rhee, than all other news media combined. But after reading the damning investigation by an independent consulting firm, I was struck by what I had missed.
We have witnessed the transformation of a once pioneering and venerated neighborhood association program into a platform for a utopian vision, all of it legitimized by the imprimatur of a city agency. There is broad public support for racial equality, social justice and economic opportunity for all, but Civic Life management was not content to build on this foundation. Instead, the program baited public strife with labels such as white privilege, European colonialism and systemic exclusion, then took resistance as proof that greater power and condemnation should be brought to bear.
The desire to disparage the well-intended cooperation of most Portlanders and tear down democratic systems employed for generations to find common ground went unchecked. Rhetoric about an ideal world took its place. While many utopians over the years have escaped society to fashion their dream world, this endeavor had the funding, staffing and license to dice up an existing institution and constituency for its purposes.
The ASCETA report on Civic Life shows the crusade not only failed to reach the holy land, it trampled the humanity and basic manners practiced by even unenlightened members of society. Belying all the anti-racism rhetoric, people of color were a majority of those fired and about half of those who came forward with vivid testimonials of racist treatment.
“The agency devolved into an authoritarian cult of personality, in which loyalty to Suk was more important than having the experience and skills to do a good job,” wrote one insider surveyed.
“Some people are incredibly devoted to her in a cult-of-personality way,” wrote another. “Vision is fantastic, but execution hasn’t brought anyone along. People are alienated. Anyone who raises questions is considered resistant to change.”
Autocratic leadership is not an anomaly in a utopia system; it is the norm. And harsh treatment of dissenters is predictable because anyone standing in the way of the leader’s righteous vision is considered expendable to the higher cause.
Utopian cults are not that hard to understand. Jim Jones and David Koresh acted them out on television. What is difficult to grasp is how city government, headed by five elected council members, could let a bureau run so far off the rails without intervening. The dysfunction was obvious to all, including times when citizens thwarted at all other junctures spoke at “open mic” time before council sessions. No one in or near City Hall could have been surprised at the arrogance, ignorance and cruelty documented in the ASCETA report.
Mayor Ted Wheeler had the power to demand change or reassign the bureau at any time. When Commissioner Chloe Eudaly, who radically repurposed the bureau in contradiction of its historic and legal mission, was defeated for reelection last fall, Wheeler could have allowed – and insisted, if necessary – that the new commissioner clean house, but that didn’t happen. Instead, Civic Life was assigned to Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, who tried to bury the report.
The fact that the ASCETA report was conducted at all owed to the advocacy of the independent City Ombudsman. And its public release would not have happened without a robust legal appeal by Oregon Public Broadcasting.
In other words, we know of the misconduct of Civic Life not because normal channels of accountability worked, but because the news media and the ombudsman took the extraordinary action demanded by an extraordinary problem.
The jalopy known as the city of Portland has no mirrors, spare tires or warning lights. It avoided the worst because bystanders jumped up and down and pointed at a wheel about to fall off. It’s a miracle it has gotten this far.
Five sacrosanct mini-mayors running the city – the functional reality of our commission form of government—is not working. One commissioner’s bureau mismanagement is overlooked so other commissioners need not worry about their colleagues looking into their own mismanagement. As we consider charter reform, one wonders what we have to lose by abandoning this smoking wreckage.