PORTLAND, Ore. (PORTLAND TRIBUNE) — On Thursday, as Multnomah County commissioners consider a strategic plan promoting work force equity and trust with communities of color, the elephant in the room will be an explosive letter they received last week.
It’s from a top county manager calling for in-depth investigation of a “pattern and practice” of “systemic” racism in county government.
The letter, obtained by the Portland Tribune, describes how Multnomah County Public Health Director Tricia Tillman is being forced out of her job despite having received only positive feedback and good performance reviews. Tillman sent it to the county commissioners and Chair Deborah Kafoury on Sept. 7, asking for a severance payment that recognizes her track record.
“I ask that you and county leadership work with community leaders from diverse communities to immediately investigate and explore the pattern and practice of racist, unjust, unfair, disparate and negative treatment of leaders of color, particularly African-Americans, who have served Multnomah County, including reviewing past settlements and administrative remedies and identifying how pervasive this treatment is and how it is perpetuated,” Tillman wrote.
In response to the letter, Chair Deborah Kafoury said, “I take complaints of discrimination and retaliation very seriously. I can assure you that I am investigating the complaint and will be taking appropriate action. We have a legal and ethical obligation to our employees, and to the public, to determine the facts.”
News of Tillman’s letter is raising questions among African-American leaders, as she has been considered an up-and-coming leader in health care. She has received several awards, including the Oregon Advocacy Commission’s Health Equity Champion award, and was appointed by Gov. Kate Brown to the state Public Health Advisory Board last year. Tillman is awaiting state Senate confirmation to the Oregon Housing Stability Council.
Shown the letter, former state Sen. Avel Gordly called Tillman “the most thoughtful, intelligent and competent health administrator in the state of Oregon. … It saddens me to know that this is how she is being treated.”
The letter also gives a boost to Commissioner Loretta Smith in her claims of being mistreated. Earlier this year, Chair Kafoury launched an investigation of Smith, who is African-American, over staffers’ allegations that the commissioner was abusive, inappropriate and misused county staffers for campaign and personal purposes. The report didn’t conclusively substantiate the allegations, but concluded the pattern of them suggested likely misuse of resources and bullying by Smith.
Asked about Tillman’s letter, Smith said she is “deeply troubled” and echoed the call for an investigation of past practices by the county “to establish whether there exists a pattern of institutional procedures which are applied inappropriately to African-Americans and other staff of color.”
Spent 12 years at county
Tillman holds a master’s degree in public health from Boston University and has been active in numerous local nonprofits, including the United Way of the Columbia-Willamette.
She began with the county in 2000, working on community projects and health equity before taking a job with the Oregon Health Authority.
At the state, she headed a staff of 27 and a $4 million annual budget in the agency’s Office of Equity and Inclusion.
In January 2015, she returned to the county as director of its Public Health Division, with a dramatically greater variety of responsibilities and a tenfold increase in staff. She oversees 280 employees and a roughly $50 million budget. Tillman, 47, earns a $149,221 county salary.
Her division includes tobacco prevention, inspections of restaurants and other facilities licensed by the county, mosquito control, maternal health programs, disease prevention and response to communicable disease outbreaks.
In her letter, Tillman says she received two positive performance reviews. She requested her annual performance review in July, but was told by her manager, health director Joanne Fuller, that it was unnecessary.
Fuller, contacted by the Tribune, declined to comment on personnel issues.
Tillman wrote that she returned from six weeks of family leave and was told two of her subordinates “could not work with her,” she wrote. Tillman said her lawyer has since been told that she was on a “performance management” program, which she said was untrue. She was told she would be demoted to a lesser post, where she could stay for a few months, but there was no long-term position available to her.
“You can imagine my confusion, devastation, and disbelief that I was being treated this way by an organization for which I have regularly gone above and beyond the call of duty,” she wrote. “Since the August 18 meeting, I was offered three months’ severance initially, and after hours of negotiation with an attorney, was offered more than 4 months.”
She said other county managers who are not black haven’t been treated similarly.
“I have been denied the opportunity to receive honest performance improvement feedback from my boss … as well as the opportunity to improve,” she wrote, adding that her treatment “seems like a combination of retaliation for taking leave to care for my mother and institutional racism.”
Tillman has retained Dana Sullivan, a top local trial lawyer.
Multnomah County Chair addresses charges of systemic racism
Today, Chair Deborah Kafoury announced a series of immediate steps to address complaints of systemic racism and unjust employment practices at Multnomah County.
“To the Multnomah County employees who stepped forward at yesterday’s hearing on our Workforce Equity ordinance, I hear your concerns, I feel your frustration and I am promising that we can and must do better for people of color. We must create safety and a sense of belonging for all employees so that we are truly inclusive and can effectively serve our entire community.’’
Chair Kafoury said the County will hire an outside employment consultant. This consultant will review and make recommendations to improve Multnomah County’s hiring and retention practices regarding people in protected classes. Protected classes include race, national origin, ethnic backgrounds, religious beliefs, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, individuals with a disability, pregnancy and age. The consultant will also evaluate the effectiveness of the County’s current human resources structure and process for addressing complaints.
Secondly, beginning now, any complaint by an employee alleging offensive or discriminatory language or behavior in the workplace is to be immediately escalated and sent to the Chief Operating Officer and Department Director.
“I want employees at Multnomah County to know their complaints will be heard, they’ll be addressed, and we will not tolerate bigotry or discrimination in our workplace,” Chair Kafoury said.
Finally, the Chair said she will personally monitor the development and delivery of a Workforce Equity Strategy for Multnomah County by Spring, 2018. The strategy will reflect lessons from the consultant and employees’ lived experience. It is expected to guide every department and office around recruitment, retention and promotion and to do the critical work of building a workplace culture that recognizes the way multiple identities are able to show up and be successful.
“It’s been difficult to hear such concerns from our own employees, but any discomfort I feel is just a fraction of the pain that people of color have experienced throughout their lives,’’ Chair Kafoury said.
The Portland Tribune is a KOIN media partner.