Longtime county administrator resigns amid firing flap

Joann Fuller retired abruptly Monday

Joann Fuller in an undated photo from the Multnomah County website via the Portland Tribune
Joann Fuller in an undated photo from the Multnomah County website via the Portland Tribune

PORTLAND, Ore. (Portland Tribune) — A longtime top Multnomah County manager, Joann Fuller, retired abruptly Monday following the controversial ouster of public health director Tricia Tillman.

Tillman last week was given a settlement worth more than a year’s pay after her letter accusing the county of institutional racism went public.

The sudden ouster sparked concerns in the community and among county employees, as Tillman has been prominent, has many allies, and, indeed, was considered by many to be Fuller’s likely successor.
Tillman’s Sept. 7 letter to the county board sparked the controversy when it went public in the Portland Tribune and The Skanner newspapers. The letter implicitly criticized Fuller, who until Monday headed the health department.

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After news broke of Tillman’s situation, a group of community leaders sent the board a letter accusing Fuller’s department of “orchestrating” Tillman’s ouster, calling it “unacceptable.”

In an email to fellow county managers, county commissioners and staff Monday morning, Fuller gave no reason for her decision, saying, “As some of you know, I have been thinking about retiring for some time. I have decided that now is the time. I will be leaving my position as Multnomah County Health Department Director at close of business today. I am grateful that it is possible for me to step back from high-pressure, full-time work and pursue my many other passions.”

Fuller could not be reached for comment, and her email account sent an auto-reply saying she was out of the office Monday.

Her announcement, came shortly after Chair Deborah Kafoury launched an investigation of how Tillman’s situation was handled. It also came about one business day after the county reached a settlement with Tillman – one that was worth about three times what officials had offered her before the investigation launched by Kafoury.

In her letter to the Multnomah County board earlier this month, Tillman, who is African-American, said she was being forced out despite good performance evaluations and feedback from Fuller.
Tillman’s ouster sparked concerned testimony to the board, calls for an independent investigation, and questions over the sincerity of officials’ statements about workforce equity.

Under the settlement, the county agrees to provide Tillman with administrative leave from Sept. 14, 2017, through Aug. 14, 2018. On top of that, it will pay her a $25,000 lump sum, and provide her an agreed-upon letter of reference.

Under the settlement, neither side admits wrongdoing, and “neither party will verbally, in writing or by any other means of communication, communicate derogatory or defamatory information about the other party.”

“I have opted to put this situation behind me in order to focus on my family and move forward in my career,” Tillman said of the settlement in a statement relayed by her attorney, Dana Sullivan. “Even though my dispute with the county has been resolved, I hope that people continue to hold the county’s feet to the fire to address the systemic issues illustrated by the courageous stories shared by so many during last week’s hearing.”

The terms of the settlement are a significant improvement for Tillman from where things stood as of Sept. 7, when she sent her letter to the board. At that time, she’d been offered “slightly more than” four months severance, she wrote. Considering her salary of $149,221, that suggested a settlement of $50,000 or a little more. Her new settlement is worth approximately three times the county’s earlier proposal.

Reasons for ouster unknown

Why Tillman was ousted remains a mystery, but what’s been released so far has raised questions about Fuller’s reasoning.

Performance reviews released under Oregon’s records law show that Tillman was praised for her work at the six-month and 18-month marks of her tenure after leaving the state for the county in January 2015.
“This has been a great year for Tricia as she has dug into leadership of the new Public Health Division,” said the June 27, 2016, review signed by Fuller. Fuller credited Tillman’s leadership for a variety of successes by the department. “Tricia has a wonderful calming style that helps people focus on the work at hand. She is very supportive of her people and clear with them about expectations and results. I am very pleased with her work and the work of the public health division this year.”

In April 2017, Tillman took family leave to care for her mother, who suffers from Stage 4 lung cancer. Tillman returned to the county on July 5 and asked for her performance review, she wrote in her Sept. 7 letter. In response, Fuller, “told me that a review would not be necessary, as she said they are perfunctory and she would take care of it so that my increases could take effect,” Tillman wrote.

Fuller told Tillman to go

But in a meeting on Aug. 18, Tillman wrote, Fuller informed her she would be demoted and allowed a “graceful” exit after two to three months – but could not remain at the county. Two subordinates had said they could not work with her, according to Tillman.
The limited information available so far on Tillman’s treatment has caused questions among those who worked for her and with her in her previous job at the Oregon Health Authority, as well as an earlier stint at Multnomah County.

“I’ve known Tricia for many years and found her to be an excellent leader,” said Dr. Ken Rosenberg, the recently-retired former chief science officer for the Oregon Health Authority’s public health division, who worked with Tillman there. “Her firing sounds fishy. I’ve never heard of someone legitimately fired because subordinates could not work with her.”

Fuller’s email to staff concluded, “It has been the highest honor for me to work with the wonderful employees of Multnomah County for 29 plus years. Multnomah County employees have an unusual combination of smarts, caring, skills and commitment that makes our local government special. All of you come to work every day ready to serve our whole community. This community needs you and you are always there. I will miss working with all of you and wish you the very best.”