Saturday, January 14, 2017

The Hopeless Task Force - Part 3

"There ain't nothin' more powerful than the odor of mendacity"

"What's the smell in this room?  Didn't you notice it, Brick?  Didn't you notice a powerful and obnoxious odor of mendacity in this room?" 

-- "Big Daddy" Pollitt

Hopeless Task Force Part 1 asked  whether Karen Ray was worth her $20,000 price tag.  Hopeless Task Force Part 2 asked whether the decision to hire her did not, among other things, violate Oregon public meetings laws.  Part 3 explores in more detail the role that deception has played in certain Task Force decisions.

Polk County's letter of resignation gave no reason for the decision to leave.  After Commissioner Wheeler submitted the letter on October 18, 2016, she asked twice, by email, whether her letter had been forwarded to the other members of the Task Force, as she had requested.  She received no reply.  Concerned that sending the letter herself would violate Oregon public meetings laws, she waited.

The news of Polk County's exit reportedly reached Commissioner Carlson on the morning of a large, regular meeting of public officials, and resulted in an emotional "meltdown" strong enough to cause Mayor Peterson to come to her aid.  After a few "there there"s, it was resolved that the Mayors would go to lunch and decide "what to do."  There's no indication in the public record that any of "the team" ever wondered why Polk County had resigned; it was only ever "what to do" about it that concerned them.

11/4/16 Memo
The strategy of "what to do" that evolved over the next several days included tactics already discussed, like refusing to acknowledge the resignation or share it with the rest of the Task Force, avoiding email discussions ("I would prefer not to be using email to talk about issues like these"), stonewalling, and, of course, secret meetings.  They included trying to get Polk County to appoint replacements and looking for reasons that would allow them to ignore the resignation (e.g., "the charter remains intact"), which is pretty much where they ended up -- ignoring the resignation.  And they did it by interpreting the letter on technical grounds as applying only to Commissioner Wheeler, while still refusing to acknowledge its receipt.

Confused?  Here's what happened.  On October 28, 2016, Commissioner Carlson sent a letter to all the Polk County appointees (except Commissioner Wheeler), introducing Karen Ray and letting them know she would be facilitating the November 7 meeting.  Of course, the letter also let them know, indirectly, that as far as the leadership team was concerned, they had not resigned.

That same day, Commissioner Carlson sent the Mayors a draft of a memorandum "to be presented to the task force for approval at the November 7 meeting."  Although its subject line was "Update", the memo made no reference to any resignation, and stated that "representatives from all jurisdictions continue to be engaged."  The only hint of an "update" was the removal of Commissioner Wheeler's name from the letterhead.  Mayor Peterson's comment on the memo:  "It is perfect."

The Polk County team conferred about what to do.  On November 2, Steve Bobb sent staff an email confirming his resignation.  On November 7, Heidi Mackay did the same, and Carlson acknowledged receipt of her email at 9:22 am.     

That evening, during the discussion of the memo, Commissioner Carlson told the Task Force that Heidi Mackay had not resigned, that she and Sheriff Garton "just couldn't be here."  She said it by way of "clarification", when Jon Reeves, aware that the memo was in response to Polk County's leaving, asked to know the reason.  Here, below, is what they said:
Jon Reeves:  "I just wanted to say I appreciate the broad stroke coming from the co-chairs, and I don't necessarily have any concerns with the wording of the document that we're putting forward, but...seeing that we have only one...of our Polk County representatives here...I'm just curious how we intend to address that, because we've made a commitment to have both Marion and Polk Counties included...Partnership to me is about the people who are at the table...and it's very important to me that we ensure that those individuals are somehow brought back to the table in some capacity...they came to the table for a reason, and left the table for a reason, and it would be nice to make sure we understand what that is...I have not heard from any of these folks why they would walk away."

"If I could clarify."
Janet Carlson: "If I could clarify.  Jennifer resigned.  Steve Bobb sent in his resignation recently.  Heidi Mackay has not resigned.  Sheriff Garton has not resigned.  They just couldn't be here tonight."

Reeves: "It's two meetings in a row, though, so it feels like it's related."

Carlson: "Right.  So, we have reached out.  Lisa has contacted all of the Polk County members.  We have talked with the Commissioners of Polk County, Craig and Mike Ainsworth, and their legal counsel, to affirm that they have not rescinded their charter, so we clarified all of that.  It's really up to their jurisdiction to determine if they're going to appoint replacements...we are pivoting to implementation, and there will be opportunities in the implementation process to move forward.  That would be my clarification.  So, do we have a motion on the floor?"

At which point, the ever-credulous Warren Bednarz, seemingly completely unaware of what had just happened, changed the subject, and the curtain was drawn on the window of opportunity through which truth and accountability might have shone.  The motion to adopt the pointless memorandum passed unanimously, without further inquiry or discussion of Polk County's reasons for "walking away", or the implications of that for Task Force or its work, and the meeting continued, facilitated by Karen Ray at a cost of about $200/minute.**
If it needs to be said, Polk County left because they knew the Task Force was a hopeless waste of time as long as Commissioner Carlson was allowed to dictate what was to be done, by whom, when, and how she wanted it, which is the only way Janet Carlson knows how to do anything.  Polk County left because they know you have to "start as you mean to go", which means if you want people to collaborate, you can't be dictating what they should be working on, etc., and this awareness put them hopelessly at odds with Carlson's methods.  So, very sensibly, they left.

The fault here was not entirely Commissioner Carlson's.  As elected officials, her co-chairs had individual moral, ethical and legal responsibilities to at least try to live up to, rather than take the path of least resistance.  Only one of them did that.

As for the other Task Force members, they must consult their own consciences, hopefully every time they encounter someone living in poverty and loneliness in the woods out in the county, or on the streets of Keizer or Salem.  At the same time, we have no doubt that, in agreeing to serve, they did not envision having to take on Commissioner Carlson, in addition to the problems of homelessness.

The provider community and the general public also bear some responsibility for the hopelessness of this Task Force.  They/we did not  interest ourselves enough in what the Task Force was doing or how, did not speak out forcefully, and did not bring pressure to bear on our public officials and colleagues to try to influence the situation for the better.

If there's a lesson here, it's that the provider community needs to get its act together.  How many times did we hear it said in Task Force meetings that Salem's non-profits don't coordinate?  That "[t]hey may all be trying to do the same thing, but they're battling each other."  We heard it over and over, "They're all battling for the same dollar, and some of them do the same thing, but they don't coordinate."  If Mayor Peterson had had a competent commission or coalition of service providers overseeing homeless housing and services delivery in Marion and Polk Counties, do you or anyone think for a minute she would have pushed the Public Safety Coordinating Council to undertake this hopeless task force?  The answer's no, because she wouldn't have needed to. 

So, if you providers don't get your act together, you're going to be visited by another top-down commission, initiative or task force, wasting its time trying to figure out how to "help" you, but mostly just wasting your time and the community's resources.  So, please, providers, no more hopeless task forces.  Come together and work things out so we don't have to keep doing this.  Build a functional coalition of service providers here in Marion and Polk Counties.

[Update 2/1/17: following the 1/23 announcement that Karen Ray would be facilitating the last meeting, we inquired of the County about the terms of that service.  We learned yesterday that Ray's contract was extended from 12/31/16 to 2/18/17.  Assuming she takes another 90 minutes at the February meeting, her per minute rate would be only $100/minute.]

[Update 3/30/17: Commissioner Carlson denies any impropriety here and more on Polk County's decision to leave the Task Force here.]

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