Portland commissioner who backs defunding police runs racial justice bureau with 'longstanding dysfunction'

Portland: City of "Mayhem"

Portland Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, who spearheaded the local defund police movement, is in hot water after attempting to block the public release of records about her “equity” bureau, which was found to be riddled with ethics and abuse of power issues permeating its bureaucratic ranks.

Hardesty was assigned in January as commissioner in charge of the Office of Community & Civic Life, which handles a range of responsibilities in Portland’s city government, including handling cannabis tax refunds and a “racial equity plan” with “social justice goals” aimed at addressing “systemic racism” and encouraging development within Black, indigenous, people of color, immigrant, and refugee communities, its website reads. 

Last year, the Portland Bureau of Human Resources and city ombudsman Margie Sollinger both received a mass of complaints from Civic Life employees. The City Attorney’s Office then contracted the consulting firm ASCETA to conduct a review into the department and provide recommendations on work culture. 

The 65-page review made public last week found “longstanding dysfunction” passed down from previous management that has festered and developed untreated into systemic distrust. Leadership and management style were described as “hierarchical” and “punitive” in the review, which was based on interviews with about two-thirds of current Civic Life employees and a dozen former employees. 

Work culture involved “toxicity” and mass firings were common. The review found “unquestioning loyalty is seen as rewarded and there is a perception of favoritism in management and hiring practices,” while “questioning and criticism is felt to be discouraged and in some cases, felt punished harshly.” 

Portland Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty speaks to protestors during a candlelight vigil to support Portlanders’ rights to free speech and assembly at the Multnomah County Justice Center last week. 
(Mason Trinca/Getty Images)

Filings said that the complaints came from “Caucasians and people of color, employees with long seniority as well as relatively new employees, line employees and supervisory employees.”

The report also said the “kitchen sink bureau” often lacked clarity in its scope of work and ambiguity ensured uncertainty. Employees described having a fear of retaliation and experienced psychological trauma from working in the department, according to the review obtained by the Portland Tribune. 

Hardesty has been an early advocate of defunding police in Portland since the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis nearly a year ago. Earlier this month, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler and city council greenlighted a $3,000,000 cut to the Portland Police Bureau. According to the city’s police union, Portland has defunded its police department by approximately $30 million since June of last year.

After the review was finalized in March, the City Attorney’s Office denied several public records requests from parties, including the Tribune, who had sought its release, citing attorney-client privilege. Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt rejected that argument and ruled it public record on May 11. The bureau’s director, Suk Rhee, resigned on May 14. And the review ultimately recommended she and three other managers be replaced. 

Hours before its expected release, Hardesty issued a statement saying her office conducted meetings with current and past employees, neighborhood associations, district coalitions and others since being assigned Civic Life in January and is “best able to help lead this bureau out of turmoil.”

“To do this, it is necessary that as a leader I am able to build trust — both with our community and employees,” the statement said. “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.”

Ombudsman Sollinger and others have criticized Hardesty for allegedly withholding the review, accusing her of lacking the transparency needed in fixing the bureau’s issues. But Hardesty said she still disagreed with the District Attorney’s decision in making its findings public. 

“This assessment is not an audit or performance evaluation of any individual and was intended to provide attorney client privileged information on personnel matters,” Hardesty continued. “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.”

Fox News’ Matt Leach contributed to this report. 

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