Paul Guinan / Special to OPB

Head of Portland’s embattled civic life bureau to depart

By Rebecca Ellis (OPB)
May 13, 2021 4:29 p.m.

Suk Rhee, the controversial head of Portland’s civic life bureau, will leave her position Friday.

Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, who oversees the bureau, announced the departure in a joint statement with Rhee Thursday. The announcement followed widespread allegations of severe workplace dysfunction and abusive management within the department.


Related: ‘A culture of fear’: Staffers say Portland’s civic life office is anything but civil

In the statement, Hardesty said she appreciated Rhee’s “service to the city and the accomplishments that she has made over the past several years.”

“As a result of her efforts, Civic Life is poised to lead collaboration directly with impacted communities and constituencies and with other City bureaus to develop more equitable processes and outcomes,” Hardesty wrote.

The statement makes no mention of the current tumult within the bureau.

Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler assigned Hardesty the bureau in January. Soon after arriving, Hardesty told OPB she had “never experienced a workplace that was so hostile to employees.”

OPB reported in March about what staffers described as a “culture of fear” within the bureau, with staffers filing at least four complaints with human resources, 11 union grievances and an estimated 20 complaints with the city’s ombudsman.


Hardesty’s announcement comes the same week as Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt ruled that Portland must make public an independent report on workplace culture within the bureau. The review was launched last year at the request of the city ombudsman, who said she was being flooded with complaints that “defy categorization.” The report was completed by strategic design consultancy firm ASCETA.

The city had refused to make the report public, citing attorney-client privilege.

After appeals from OPB, Willamette Week, the NW Examiner and a former civic life employee, the district attorney ruled against the city Tuesday, dismissing the bureau’s basis for keeping it from the public as unfounded.

“Apart from including a label that the report is “attorney-client privileged” there is nothing in the report itself that would lead any reasonable reviewer to believe it related to the facilitation of professional legal services,” Schmidt wrote.

Schmidt has ordered the city to hand over the report “promptly.” The city has not responded to multiple inquiries into when it will do so.

Portland’s civic life bureau manages a host of city programs, including noise complaints, cannabis and liquor sales, and graffiti clean up. The office also oversees funding for the city’s network of 95 neighborhood associations, local groups responsible for promoting civic engagement.

Former Portland Commissioner Chloe Eudaly, who left City Hall in December after losing her re-election, brought in Rhee to make the bureau more inclusive to renters and people of color. At the time, Rhee was a vice president at Portland-based charity Northwest Health Foundation.

Under Rhee’s watch, the bureau’s name changed from the Office of Neighborhood Involvement to the Office of Community & Civic Life, intended to underscore a desire to support all Portlanders. The bureau transitioned away from supporting neighborhood-watch groups and made a doomed attempt to change the city code and reduce the influence of the city’s network of neighborhood associations.

Thursday’s announcement by Hardesty and Rhee touts other accomplishments Rhee oversaw, including a campaign to get Oregonians enrolled in the 2020 census, supporting legal representation for people at risk of deportation, and the city’s $2 million investment in the Oregon Workers Relief Fund.

“There is a time and season for everything,” Rhee wrote. “This part of the journey is over, the next begins. I, therefore, leave off where I began, with hope. Please continue to support the great people at Civic Life who work every day with Portlanders to promote the common good.”

More specifics around Rhee’s departure were not provided in the release. Hardesty said further information on “the future of civic life” will be announced soon.


Tags: Portland, City Of Portland