Politics

Mayor Ted Wheeler turned to Sam Adams to fix Portland. But at what cost?

By Alex Zielinski
Jan. 20, 2023 7:02 p.m.

The sudden departure of the former mayor only surprised people who did not know his reputation for his “steamroller” style.

Sam Adams’ fourth chapter in Portland City Hall began and ended in upheaval.

When Adams, a former Portland mayor, was tapped by Mayor Ted Wheeler in February 2021 to join the mayor’s office, Adams was expected to use his unique abilities to advance policy in City Hall to tackle the city’s biggest crises – ranging from gun violence to homelessness.

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Former Portland Mayor Sam Adams, center, pictured in 2020.

Former Portland Mayor Sam Adams, shown talking with two women in this 2020 file photo at a public event, recently left a second stint in city hall after numerous reports of alleged bullying of staff in his position as a change agent in Mayor Ted Wheeler's office.

Courtesy of Sam Adams

When he was fired by Wheeler on Jan. 10, Adams left the mayor’s office scrambling to explain the growing number of complaints made against him for allegedly bullying staff.

In many ways, the characteristics that brought Adams into Wheeler’s office were the same ones that prompted his abrupt exit. Adams’ ability to shove past critics and naysayers to carry city policies over the finish line has long been venerated in Portland City Hall. Yet his treatment of city employees along the way has left dozens of people humiliated and hurt and driven some to end their burgeoning careers in public service.

Adams’ absence will be felt across the city. As Wheeler’s chosen change agent, Adams was responsible for laying out and overseeing some of the mayor’s top projects for 2023. But his departure could also make way for a more welcoming working environment in City Hall, allowing younger staff to be heard in policy discussions and see career advancement.

Few familiar with Adams’ history in local politics were shocked by his firing.

“It’s fair to say that no one should be surprised by this,” said Deborah Kafoury, former Multnomah County Chair. “Sam has been around City Hall a long time in many different capacities. His style and demeanor have been well-known and well-documented, which makes me question why he was brought back on.”

Getting things done, at a price

Adams’ legacy in City Hall – spanning from his time as an aide to former Mayor Vera Katz to his own term as mayor from 2009 to 2012 – was defined by his bureaucratic shrewdness and his short temper.

As a mayoral aide, city commissioner and mayor, Adams’ rough treatment of staff, fellow commissioners, lobbyists, and reporters was characterized as savvy governing. After setting his sights on a certain policy or initiative, former staff say Adams would typically dismiss any suggestions to adapt the idea, and often respond to pushback with anger – including yelling or using insults to humiliate staff in front of their colleagues. It was a successful approach.

In this Nov. 14, 2011, photo shows former Portland Mayor Sam Adams was no stranger to controversy during his time as mayor. In this 2011 file photo, he's shown after a news conference discussing a police raid on the Occupy Portland encampment, in Portland, Ore. With two parks outside his office cleared of Occupy Portland demonstrators for the first time in more than five weeks, Adams had a message for the protesters: evolve.

In this Nov. 14, 2011, photo shows former Portland Mayor Sam Adams was no stranger to controversy during his time as mayor. In this 2011 file photo, he's shown after a news conference discussing a police raid on the Occupy Portland encampment, in Portland, Ore. With two parks outside his office cleared of Occupy Portland demonstrators for the first time in more than five weeks, Adams had a message for the protesters: evolve.

Rick Bowmer / AP

Adams “steamroller” style of leadership is still talked about with admiration by some former colleagues and aides, characterized by one as the required ability to “break a few eggs to make an omelet.”

In an interview with OPB, Adams said he approached his most recent position in Wheeler’s office with a level of “bluntness” not always seen in City Hall.

“I don’t set out to make people uncomfortable or mad at me, but things were so bad (in the city) that I didn’t feel like I could address it another way,” he said. “I have gladly put a lot of my blood, sweat, and tears into this city. Portland is in a fight for its life. To address it, it takes someone putting stuff out there that is sometimes controversial.”

Adams’ prior stint in City Hall was also marked by untruthfulness. Not long after entering the mayor’s office in 2009, Adams admitted to lying about a relationship he had pursued with a former legislative intern named Beau Breedlove, who was 17 when they met. After months of denial, Adams confessed that he had in fact been in a sexual relationship with Breedlove. He’s said that the relationship did not turn sexual before Breedlove turned 18, Oregon’s age of consent.

Adams was not charged with any crimes and served out the rest of his term in office. He left city politics from 2012 to 2020, when he ran an unsuccessful campaign to return to Portland City Council.

Portlanders saw Adams’ inconsistent relationship with the truth rear up again last week, when Wheeler said Adams misled the public on why he was leaving City Hall.

Adams initially claimed to be resigning from his job in Wheeler’s office on his own accord to address health concerns. Days later, however, the mayor went to the media to correct the record. In an unusual joint interview with the Oregonian and Willamette Week, Wheeler explained that he had asked Adams to resign after learning of Adams’ recorded pattern of “bullying and intimidation” against female city employees. In that interview, Wheeler expressed his disappointment that Adams hadn’t been honest about why he was leaving with media outlets earlier in the week. “(Adams) had an opportunity to own it, and he didn’t,” Wheeler said, according to the Oregonian. “There is no place for bullying or intimidating or harassing behavior (at the city.)”

Adams has contested Wheeler’s narrative. Adams told OPB that he offered his resignation to the mayor prior to Wheeler asking for him to resign.

“He fired me after I resigned,” Adams said. “That felt like a knife in the back.”

Adams did not receive a severance package from the city. He said he hasn’t spoken with the mayor since leaving City Hall.

Wheeler’s office declined to make the mayor available for an interview with OPB. The office also did not respond when OPB asked if the mayor had been aware of Adams’ reputation during his earlier City Hall stints before hiring him. However, the mayor knew about Adams’ reported mistreatment of his staff for over a year before he decided to fire him.

Mayor Ted Wheeler speaks at a Portland City Council, Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2022, during a series of resolutions that aim to build at least three large city-sanctioned camping sites and ban other homeless camping across Portland.

Mayor Ted Wheeler speaks at a Portland City Council, Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2022, during a series of resolutions that aim to build at least three large city-sanctioned camping sites and ban other homeless camping across Portland.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OPB

According to a joint statement provided to OPB by Wheeler’s office and the city’s Bureau of Human Resources, Wheeler’s office was first alerted to a complaint against Adams in August 2021, five months after Adams’ hire. In that complaint, an unidentified staffer in the Office of Community and Civic Life described Adams threatening her future job security for not agreeing with him in a meeting. OPB obtained copies of all human resources complaints made against Adams since his February 2021 hire through a public records request with the city.

In an email to Wheeler’s chief of staff, the staffer’s supervisor, interim director of the Office of Community and Civic Life Michael Montoya, relayed his employee’s concerns. Montoya said she had told him that she felt “cornered” and “belittled” by Adams.

“Please consider this a courtesy email from me,” Montoya wrote. “I in no way know if Sam was having a bad day, if this is a pattern, if these violate [human resources rules], if in your mind and work with Sam they warrant a conversation or an investigation. At the very least, Sam clearly needs some seriously worded guidance on harnessing his dedication and passion for making a difference.”

In an email summary of another complaint, filed in September 2021, human resources director Cathy Bless said the complainant told her she “came to the City, in part, because she felt it was a safe place to work.” And yet, Bless later quotes the complainant telling her that, “Women are leaving the Mayor’s office because of Sam and are afraid to say anything.”

For whatever reason, Wheeler’s office has seen an unusual amount of staff turnover since 2020. Since February 2021, when Adams was hired, at least 17 people have left the mayor’s office, including eight women.

Wheeler does not appear to have taken action until city attorneys logged complaints in December 2022. In emails to city attorney Robert Taylor, an unidentified female city attorney described a Dec. 15 meeting in which Adams was condescending toward her and another female city attorney.

“This was one of the most unprofessional experiences that I’ve had not just at the City, but in my career,” she wrote, adding that she left the meeting “in tears.”

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OPB spoke to several city staff who asked to speak anonymously out of fear of retaliation. According to several with knowledge of this specific meeting, the conversation was about the city’s attempt to reach a settlement agreement with plaintiffs with disabilities who sued the city in 2021, alleging the city’s tolerance of homeless camping on sidewalks violated the Americans With Disabilities Act. The city attorney who lodged the HR complaint said Adams appeared upset at how city attorneys had wanted to counter the plaintiffs’ settlement proposal.

Mayor Ted Wheeler, during a Portland City Council meeting on Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2022, on a series of resolutions that aim to build at least three large city-sanctioned camping sites and ban other homeless camping across Portland.

Mayor Ted Wheeler, during a Portland City Council meeting on Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2022, on a series of resolutions that aim to build at least three large city-sanctioned camping sites and ban other homeless camping across Portland.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OPB

This wasn’t the first time Adams butted heads with government lawyers over Portland’s approach to homelessness. In 2021, Adams lobbied city attorneys to rubber-stamp a plan to ban street camping in all of downtown Portland. According to staff familiar with these conversations, Adams would interrupt and insult female city attorneys who had expertise in laws related to homelessness when challenged his policy on legal grounds in meetings with their manager. Other city employees say Adams attempted to circumvent the legal concerns by going directly to their boss, city attorney Taylor, and demanding the policy’s approval. But the proposal never moved forward.

The city’s joint statement explains that it was the “accumulation of serious concerns” that led to the Bureau of Human Resources ultimately recommending Wheeler fire Adams in mid-December.

An angry city

The delay in Wheeler choosing to penalize Adams for his mistreatment of staff could be due to the political cachet Adams brought to his office.

Wheeler hired Adams in February 2021 at a particularly challenging moment in time for city governing.

The mayor had just called for stricter criminal penalties for protesters who break the law, after about seven months of near-nightly racial justice demonstrations. The city was reeling from a dramatic rise in gun violence, and Multnomah County had just reported an annual all-time high in the number of people who died while homeless in 2020. Poll after poll reflected Portlanders’ dissatisfaction with the state of local politics and leadership. Some were upset enough to lash out at Wheeler himself: In early January, a woman physically confronted and yelled obscenities at Wheeler while he was at a restaurant with a friend.

Several staffers who worked closely with Wheeler at the time agreed that the mayor was burnt out from 2020 and seemed directionless.

Adams said he was “shocked” at the state of City Hall when he arrived.

“I found a deeply demoralized city government with very few actionable plans at the needed size and scale to deal with multiple and massive problems that we faced at the time,” he said.

Several staffers in Wheeler’s office told OPB that they understood that Adams was being brought in to serve as a “power broker” to execute the mayor’s stated priorities. Adams said Wheeler was clear that Adams’ responsibility was to “fix the city’s most urgent problems, whatever it took.”

“You don’t confront massive problems like this with solutions at scale without rubbing some people the wrong way,” he said.

Even people outside of City Hall could sense why Adams was hired.

“When Wheeler brought [Adams] on, it felt quite appropriate,” said TJ Browning, a community activist who serves as the vice president of the Laurelhurst Neighborhood Association. Browning also served on several city police reform commissions when Adams was working for Katz, and is familiar with his approach to politics.

“His style is quite abrasive, and yet he does have a way of getting things done,” Browning said. “Wheeler doesn’t appear to have a strong leadership style, so bringing someone in that did, like Sam … that felt like a natural fit.”

Browning said she was impressed with Adams’ ability to push forward the city’s response to homelessness in the past year, including the plan City Council members approved late last year to ban street camping and force people living outside into city-run encampments by 2024. She’s worried that the momentum behind that project may slow with Adams gone.

“Who is going to fill that void? I have no idea. Is a big responsibility, and no one operates quite like [Adams],” Browning said. “I believe he truly loved this city and really wanted to fix it. But as soon as he said he was leaving, I knew it had to do with some kind of abusive behavior.”

Wheeler’s office is quick to guarantee that no present policy goals will be hampered by Adams’ exit. “Mayor Wheeler’s ambitious policy agenda absolutely continues moving forward in 2023,” said Cody Bowman, a spokesperson for the mayor.

While in the mayor’s office, Adams served as a loud advocate for the city’s top business leaders and developers. Portland developer Homer Williams said Adams’ ability to push forward city policies in the 2000s was integral in establishing Williams’ development projects in the Pearl District and South Waterfront. Williams said he worries Adams’ exit will weaken the city’s ability to solve similarly complex issues, particularly around homelessness.

“The [homeless] camps… that’s my biggest worry,” said Williams, who also founded the homeless shelter and service nonprofit Oregon Harbor of Hope. “That is one solution that we absolutely need, but it’s complicated. Sam could handle complicated things. I find it very difficult to understand why it had to end this way.”

With mayoral aide Sam Adams now gone from Portland City Hall, shown in this September 2022 file photo, some staffers speculate the tone may shift to become more inclusive, something they said was lacking with Adams' "steamroller" leadership style.

With mayoral aide Sam Adams now gone from Portland City Hall, shown in this September 2022 file photo, some staffers speculate the tone may shift to become more inclusive, something they said was lacking with Adams' "steamroller" leadership style.

MacGregor Campbell / OPB

A new tone at City Hall?

Many see Adams’ departure as an opportunity to improve City Hall’s functions.

Several current and former city staffers who spoke to OPB on the condition on anonymity, said they believe internal city functions will operate more smoothly without Adams intervening.

More than one person underscored Adams’ work pushing the city’s Office of Government Relations to lobby for certain items at the state legislature with little time to prepare. Adams’ insistence on pressuring legislators to get on board with controversial bills stoked discomfort and upset in the office, causing regular employee turnover. The city only has one lobbyist on staff working to represent Portland’s civic interests during the current legislative session.

While Adams was openly hired to disrupt in City Hall, several staff say that disruption led to the breakdown of basic systems, including the mayor’s communications arm. Wheeler has been without a communications director since May 2021. In the interim, Adams would personally reach out to reporters to detail new policies – often contradicting the work of other city employees and threatening important city relationships.

City Commissioner Dan Ryan sees Adams’ exit as an opportunity to usher in a new era of collaborative and respectful leadership in City Hall.

“I think in every sector of work, we know that each decade things evolve… the MeToo movement taught us that,” Ryan said. “We’re just having another one of those types of reminders… that the way you are effective at moving work forward is different in 2023 than it was in the past.”

Ryan said he hadn’t heard anything about Adams’ alleged mistreatment of fellow public employees until Wheeler made it public. Up until recently, Ryan oversaw the city bureaus that dealt with housing and homelessness, meaning his staff worked closely with Adams and others in Wheeler’s office to create new policies. Ryan said that the work his office and others’ put into establishing outdoor shelters and the plan to establish city-run camps will not crumble now that Adams is gone.

“One person does not set the entire tone for City Hall, nor one office,” he said.

Kafoury, the former county chair, agreed that the way the city operated with Adams in office – in an elected role or otherwise – isn’t sustainable.

“Things have changed since Sam was mayor,” she said. “The old way of just pushing things through doesn’t really work anymore. It might work in the short term, but it’s not a long-term solution. You have to be collaborative.”

Adams’ exit may mean the end to unchecked bullying of city staff. But, Kafoury noted, it doesn’t repair the harm he perpetuated on colleagues along the way.

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