Twelve-year veteran of Multnomah County, Tricia Tillman, has been asked to step from her role as public health director at the Multnomah County Health Department, a position she has held since January 2015.
In a Sept. 7 letter addressed to County Chair Deborah Kafoury, and obtained by The Skanner, Tillman outlines how she took an approved Family and Medical Leave in April – to care for her mother who has recurrent stage 4 lung cancer – but communicated with the health department about returning to her job in early July.
On Aug. 18, six weeks into her return to the county, Tillman claims she was asked by health department director Joanne Fuller to “gracefully” exit from the county. According to Tillman, Fuller had explained that as her role as public health director “was not working out” and that “no long-term option existed for me in the county.”
Tillman claims that despite requests for more information, she was not given specifics. In the letter she points to a conversation she had with the county’s HR director, during which it was brought to her attention that two subordinates had expressed being unable to work with her. Tillman mentions that both employees had received promotions into their current positions while on her leadership team.
According to the letter, in the weeks following Aug. 18, Tillman was offered just over four months of severance, after hours of negotiating with an attorney.
As the first public health director at Multnomah County who is not White, Tillman stated in her letter, “This treatment smacks of institutional racism and disparate treatment. It contradicts how other senior leaders who are not Black are treated, and conflicts with county and health department values of workforce equity and life-work balance.”
Tillman calls the county’s actions “incongruous” with her track record; and the change in leadership “unpredictable,” “disrespectful” and “non-transparent.”
Tillman’s attorney, Dana Sullivan, told The Skanner that there was an implication that her dismissal was performance related; yet the feedback Tillman had received over her two and a half years as public health director has been overwhelmingly positive.
“She has a remarkable record related to health equity, diversity, and social justice. If it comes down to a dispute about how she performed in her role, she’s confident that her accomplishments will speak for themselves,” said Sullivan.
Prior to her leadership position, she served the county in various roles from 2000 to 2009, during which she launched the Multnomah County Health Equity Initiative and received formal recommendations and positive feedback and performance reviews. From 2009 to 20014, she was the director of the Oregon Health Authority's Office of Equity and Inclusion.
Following Tillman’s letter to Kafoury is a two-page appendix outlining her achievements as public health director, among them, establishing the Multnomah County Public Health Advisory Board and overseeing the development of an equity-focused Community Health Improvement Plan.
She also highlights that she worked in partnership with Fuller, and that her accomplishments as public health director were met with approval and satisfaction by her superior.
Tillman is asking Kafoury for severance that is consistent with her 12 years at Multnomah County and “your consideration of the unfair and damaging impact this discriminatory process has had on my professional reputation and well-being.”
In addition, Tillman calls for a re-evaluation and investigation into the actions taken towards her, as well as a broader look – on part of the chair and county leaders – into the pattern and practice of racism, unjust and disparate treatment of leaders of color who have served Multnomah County.
Sullivan said no tort claim notice or complaints with the Bureau of Labor and Industries have been filed on behalf of Tillman.
Multnomah County told The Skanner that Fuller and Human Resources cannot comment on personnel matters, but Kafoury did issue the following statement:
“I take complaints of discrimination and retaliation very seriously. I can assure you that I am investigating the complaint and will be taking appropriate action. We have a legal and ethical obligation to our employees, and to the public, to determine the facts.”