Robyn Burek left her position as the city’s first manager of Portland Street Response in early July with little explanation. Members of the public speculated that her unexpected resignation from the alternative first response program had something to do with growing morale and leadership issues.
A copy of Burek’s exit interview with the city, obtained by OPB through public records law, reveals those assumptions weren’t far from the truth.
“I thought I would manage [Portland Street Response] until I retired — that’s how committed I was to the program,” Burek wrote in the exit interview with Portland Fire & Rescue, the bureau that oversees Portland Street Response. Burek completed the interview on July 18, two weeks after her last day on the job. She has since taken an administrative job in the City Auditor’s office.
Burek explained that she left due to a lack of support and poor transparency by the Fire Bureau’s top brass.
“I felt intentionally set up and politically scapegoated, all while Fire leadership continued to lack accountability in their failure to adequately support the buildout of this program over the past 2.5 years,” Burek wrote.
Burek was hired to serve as Portland Street Response’s inaugural manager in November 2020, a year after Portland City Council adopted the program. Former City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, who oversaw Portland Fire & Rescue at the time, brought the program to City Hall as a way to send mental health workers to behavioral health emergencies instead of police officers.
Burek led the program through a period of quick growth, expanding from a small pilot project to a citywide response team in just over a year. Now, over a year into citywide operations, Portland Street Response is showing measured success: A recent report by Portland State University found that the program has both lightened police workloads and helped keep hundreds of people in crisis out of costly jail beds and crowded hospital emergency departments.
Yet, the future of the program has become uncertain in recent months. In January, Hardesty lost a reelection bid to City Commissioner Rene Gonzalez, who now oversees the Fire Bureau. Gonzalez quickly imposed a hiring freeze on the bureau, keeping Portland Street Response from its planned expansion to 24-7 operations, and introduced a ban on staff distributing tents to Portland Street Response clients, many of whom are experiencing homelessness.
According to Gonzalez’s office, the hiring freeze lifted within the past week. The tent ban remains in place.
These changes hurt staff morale, according to Burek and others in the program.
Burek’s unexpected resignation only added to growing unease, leaving both employees and the public concerned for Portland Street Response’s future. Last week, a group of businesses, nonprofits and elected officials began circulating a petition to urge Portland City Council to expand the program and keep it out of camping policy enforcement. The petition has since collected 10,000 signatures.
Burek underscored uncertainties about Portland Street Response’s future in her interview. She said that, in the prior six months, Fire Bureau leadership hadn’t shown the type of support needed to ensure the young program’s continued success.
She said this became most evident after the unexpected departure of Division Chief Tim Matthews, who oversaw Portland Street Response’s work within the bureau. Fire Chief Sara Boone placed Matthews on leave in December 2022. In a legal filing, Matthews claims he was cast off in retribution for penalizing a Fire Bureau employee who was close friends with Boone. Boone has denied this allegation.
Gonzalez entered City Hall a month after this decision. According to Gonzalez’s chief of staff, Shah Smith, the city’s human resources department told them it would be “problematic” to immediately fill Matthews’ position at the time.
Either way, Matthews’ departure left a leadership vacuum in Portland Street Response. In March, when Matthews’ position remained vacant, Burek said her team reached out to Fire Bureau leadership for guidance.
“We learned that the current leadership’s approach to helping is one of two responses: either ‘you’re on your own’ or they will completely take it over and out of the hands of those working on the program,” she wrote.
A month later, Boone appointed longtime Division Chief Ryan Gillespie to oversee Portland Street Response. He quickly asserted his authority, announcing a freeze on the program’s purchases, like food and warm clothing, and curtailing communications between Portland Street Response and Portland City Council.
Gillespie has previously explained the purchasing freeze was due to Portland Street Response not getting the correct approval from the city before buying goods. That freeze lifted at the end of June.
This transition in leadership did little to bolster the program’s needed support, according to Burek.
“Current leadership made no effort to share in decision-making or make efforts to mentor and bring us into the fold when I and the other two managers asked for support,” Burek wrote. “I knew that there were areas where the program and myself could have improved, and I was open to feedback and growth. However, core leadership’s approach to the problems we were facing felt punitive, lacking in transparency and disingenuous.”
She said that core leadership, which includes Boone and Gillespie, didn’t support Portland Street Response during a critical period of time, during which the public and local politicians accused the program of being led by police abolitionists and enabling homelessness.
In short, Burek said she felt that bureau leadership wanted little to do with Portland Street Response. It’s a theme echoed in the recent Portland State University report, which described frequent clashes between firefighters and Portland Street Response staff. Staff interviewed by researchers say this was rooted in the significant differences in expected workplace culture and communication styles between the two factions.
Burek suggested the city move Portland Street Response into another bureau to resolve these issues and others. She proposed the program relocate to the Community Safety Division, a relatively new department that oversees gun violence prevention and homeless outreach programs. Portland State University researchers — and former Commissioner Hardesty — have made the same recommendation in the past month.
Gillespie dismissed this recommendation in a formal response to the Portland State University report, stating that the program’s “current liabilities and weaknesses” won’t disappear if Portland Street Response simply switches bureaus.
Burek’s exit interview is notably missing one prominent player in Portland Street Response’s oversight body: Commissioner Gonzalez. While Gonzalez was responsible for placing a hiring freeze across the entire bureau and banning tent distribution, Burek centers her criticism on Fire Bureau leadership.
Fire Bureau representatives did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Burek said she was driven to step down from the job after seeing its impact on her mental health, sleep and “overall ability to have a healthy balance in life.”
Burek’s letter comes amid another leadership change: Boone retired as fire chief in early July, and Gillespie succeeded her.
Burek remained hopeful that the new division chief selected to oversee Portland Street Response, Stephanie Sullivan, will better serve the program. She has also expressed support for the program’s new manager, former Portland Street Response mental health clinician Lielah Leighton.
“I care a lot about this program,” Burek wrote. “But I also believe there’s a benefit to handing the program over to someone with fresh eyes, vision, and hope.”