Evidence is mounting that the Multnomah County agency charged with preparing Portland to cope with a disaster, the Office of Emergency Management, is now its own disaster area.
Poor leadership, mismanagement, and missing -- possibly even stolen -- equipment, are among the allegations under investigation. County Chair Ted Wheeler is under fire for failing to notice the problems and take action sooner.
Red flags were raised after last year's $27 million TOPOFF 4 terrorism preparedness exercise. A draft report on the exercise, released to The Skanner Wednesday by the city emergency management office, confirms earlier reports that coordination difficulties between Multnomah County and the city showed up during the exercise.
The report also states that the exercise was valuable for regional emergency services staff and volunteers, and noted strengths in the emergency response system.
The report said Multnomah County was slow to reply to the city's requests. For example, it was not until the third day of the exercise that the county responded to the city's request for a liaison with the county's health department.
"There certainly were coordination issues with the county," said Carmen Merlo, director of the Portland Office of Emergency Management. "It was the case that requests to the Multnomah County Emergency Operations Center went unanswered for some time."
James Spitzer, one of the most experienced emergency managers in the county and the lead controller of TOPOFF, completed his report on the exercise in January. While praising the commitment and hard work of the participants, he noted coordination problems at the command levels.
So what about communication between the county emergency operations center and the city, for example?
"It has to improve," Spitzer said.
The lid boiled off the pot on Aug. 5, when the county announced that Emergency Management Director George Whitney had resigned – with no reason offered. In fact, Wheeler and Jana McLellan, deputy chief operating officer for the county, met with Whitney on Aug. 1 to ask for his resignation, after receiving complaints about Whitney's performance.
Whitney declined The Skanner's request for an interview.
According to a July 30 memo from Mayor Tom Potter, [see at end of article below] other regional official allege Whitney "has created an atmosphere of distrust," has "a bullying attitude" to regional emergency staffers, "makes many promises, but is unreliable and doesn't follow through…" and "misrepresents conversations and decisions."
Potter's memo details how emergency staff from Gresham, Portland, Clackamas County, Clark County and the state emergency management office in Salem all reported problems with Whitney's attitude and performance.
Commissioner Lisa Naito echoed these concerns in a memo to Wheeler on Aug. 3. [see at end of article below] Naito asked Wheeler to fire Whitney.
"You will recall that last year after the TOPOFF exercise I spoke to you about George's inability to lead his department, collaborate with other jurisdictions and lead the county in the event of an emergency," Naito says in the four-page memo. "Frankly, I remain convinced that he is incompetent."
Memos Tell Story
In the memo, Naito goes on to say that her opinion crystallized during the TOPOFF 4 Homeland security exercise last October, which brought together leaders from five counties, the state and even federal level to practice managing a major disaster. The training exercise asked leaders, health workers and citizen volunteers to imagine that a "dirty bomb" had exploded in Portland.
Naito states in the memo that Whitney had failed to provide her with vital information about her role, leaving her unprepared to lead.
Yet on Aug. 8 McClellan, who briefly stepped in to fill the leadership vacuum after Whitney's departure, told The Skanner, "George has been marvelous in getting the grant dollars into the county and the region."
Cathy Harrington, who coordinates emergency management for Gresham, said attracting Homeland Security grants to the region was a team effort.
"I don't want to say George didn't have an influence -- because he did write some grants, but there are a lot of people writing grants," Harrington said.
According to other memos between Naito and county auditor LaVonne Griffin-Valade, a consultant has estimated that "millions of dollars" in equipment is unaccounted for. The losses likely occurred before Whitney's arrival at the county in January 2007.
Griffin-Valade said her department is working an on inventory of county equipment that will take months to complete.
Another red flag was the poor condition of Multnomah County's Emergency Management Web site – potentially a key source of information for many Portlanders. The site is so out of date that a listed contact number for a staff member offers a recorded snow warning.
Plans on the site date from 2002 and 2006. And if you want to know how to prepare your family for a disaster, you won't find that information on the county site.
A 2006 consultant's report slammed the county's emergency management effort. That report cited lack of adequate staff and a poor Web site.
In Gresham, Harrington stressed that relationships with other county staff are good.
"We still do have a good relationship with the county," she said. "We have some highly skilled people working on emergency management and the region really is very well prepared."
Rhys Scholes, communications coordinator for Wheeler, blamed hiring problems and lack of funds to update the Website.
"Yes it is terrible," Scholes said. "We're apologetic about it. We've just hired a new Web site manager – it is a long sad story."
MULTNOMAH COUNTY OREGON
BOARD OF COUNTY COMMISSIONERS
501 S.E. HAWTHORNE BLVD., Room 600
PORTLAND, OREGON 97204
LISA NAITO. DISTRICT 3 COMMISSIONER
TO: Chair Ted Wheeler
FROM: Commissioner Lisa Naito
DATE: August 3rd 2008 .
RE: George Whitney, Emergency Management Director
I ask once again for your removal of George Whitney as Emergency Management
Director. You will recall that last year after the TOP OFF exercise, I spoke to you about
George's inability to manage his department, collaborate with other jurisdictions and lead
the County in the event of an emergency. In my opinion, there has been no
improvement. Frankly, I remain convinced that he is incompetent.
Lack of Preparation and Training
I am concerned that the County is not preparing and planning adequately for
emergencies. After 911, the County and the City of Portland regularly conducted
tabletop exercises to jointly prepare for emergencies. The exercises were useful in
establishing communication between responding agencies, educating leadership about
roles and responsibilities, identifying weaknesses and fostering collaboration for· sharing'
resources. There have been no planning exercises of this type since Top Off. There have
been no joint exercises with East County.
You will recall that last fall I told you George failed in basic planning and preparation for
TOP OFF. I used my experience as an example. I was asked to represent the County as
Commander at the Venue Control Center (VCC) three days before the action began.
Upon reporting for duty I learned that I had important responsibilities for the exercise and
that several other people were to report to me. I was totally unprepared through no fault
of my own. I lacked even the basic skills needed,· such as accessing the web emergency
operations center. With the exception of the Sheriffs Office, the other County staff at
the VCC was similarly unprepared. I learned that my counterparts from the City of
Portland and State of Oregon had been training- for their duties for approximately nine
months. With the assistance of Patty Hopkins from the City of Portland, Kelly Jo
Craigmiles from the State, and Steve Bullock from our Department of Emergency
Management, I got the "on the job" training and assistance needed to accomplish the
basic requirements of my position. I was also blessed with other County staff at the VCC
who quickly learned their jobs and performed in an exemplary manner. By the end of the
exercise, our team was performing successfully and had earned the respect of our peers.
The point of this is that there was no excuse for George's lack of organization and
preparation for the exercise. He could have assigned people to their roles months before
the exercise, as he had been requested to do, so that we could have all received the proper
training. Preparation and proper training are the cornerstones of emergency
Lack of Contact Information for Communication in the Event of an Emergency
I have repeatedly asked the Department for up-to-date contact information in the event of
an emergency. The last Multnomah County Key Leaders Contact Phone listings I have
are dated 1/08/07. As employees frequently change, I have requested that this list be .
updated regularly with a clear date of revision. Consistency is important, and procedures
should be established to update this list quarterly. This is basic information that should
.. be readily available.
In addition to the list of County Leaders, I have also repeatedly asked for a list of key
leaders at the City and State levels. This has not been provided. County leadership needs
the ability to contact the emergency directors of other jurisdictions directly in the event of
an emergency. We also need the ability to contact Mayors, City Commissioners and
Legislators to make sure they receive timely information from us or know how to access
information to coordinate our efforts and provide accurate information to the public. My
frustration over this issue prompted me to ask Sheriff Skipper to compile this information
shortly after he was sworn in and I appreciate his willingness to do so. I also informed
him of my lack of confidence in George Whitney and requested that his office maintain a
high level of preparedness to make up for the deficiencies in the leadership at the
Department of Emergency Management.
Inability to Collaborate with Other Jurisdictions
During TOP OFF, I learned of George's reputation in the emergency management
community. It was reported to me that he failed to attend meetings, misrepresented facts
and was generally held in low esteem. After TOP OFF, I conducted independent
interviews with Carmen Merlo, Director of Emergency Management at the City of
Portland and Cheryl Bledsoe, Director of Emergency Management at the City of
Vancouver before discussing this matter with you. They confirmed the information.
When I shared this information with you, you thought these were turf issues and believed
relationships would improve.
I do not believe there has been any improvement. Recently, I have been working on
emergency planning exercise regarding public safety and court facilities this fall through
the Local Public Safety Coordinating Council. I have abandoned this idea after learning
other entities do not want to conduct exercises With our County because George is so
difficult to work with. This is unacceptable. .
While these are my most pressing concerns, there are others. He has failed to
demonstrate leadership and build a team with his staff. I remain troubled by the
treatment of Pam Mindt, a veteran and able County employee of many years. His
management and hiring practices should be reviewed by our Director of Human
I think George has an inflated view of his own abilities to the detriment of our program.
Honest assessments of strengths and weaknesses are necessary for emergency
preparedness. After TOP OFF, George minimized some of the problems that were
exposed, and I think it was because those problems were largely due to his poor
performance. .One of the main problems was the confusion over communications and
responsibilities between our Health Department and the County Department of
Emergency Management. From my vantage point at the VCC, the County's response to
the emergency floundered until the Health Department stepped up and took charge, partly
because of George's inability to lead and coordinate operations. This came up as an issue
in the debriefing, where I learned that George wanted the Health Department emergency
operations to be unified under his command at Emergency Management. I told Jim
Spitzer at the time that I would fight any effort to combine their operations under
George's leadership. Collaboration is important, but I was concerned over a merger. Our
Health Department has excellent emergency management leadership, qualified staff, and
they train and prepare on a regular basis. I have complete confidence in Lillian Shirley,
Dave Haughton, Dr. Oxman and Jim Spitzer. I was concerned that the excellent program
we have at the Health Department would have been destroyed if it was put under
Another weakness identified in TOP OFF was the lack of one elected leader taking
charge and assuming responsibility for the event from beginning to end. After the initial
response to the bomb, the issues were largely health and human service issues and the
area affected was larger than the City of Portland. I believe that if George had advised
and assisted you properly, you would have taken on this responsibility successfully.
I participated in the hiring process for this position and met with the committee that
interviewed the three finalists. I went to the community gathering at the downtown
library when the final candidates made their presentations and thought George had a poor
performance. I was surprised when he was offered the position. Nonetheless, I have tried
to work with him.
I take the responsibility to lead the County during an emergency in your absence
seriously and trained for this by attending a week long course offered by the Federal
Emergency Management Administration.. I continue to recommend that you avail
yourself of this training, too. One of the benefits of the training is to learn the roles for
all the leadership positions in responding to an emergency. I believe that if you had this
training, you would agree with me that George lacks the fundamental skills necessary to
build an effective program and lead our department in the event of an emergency.
Thank you for your consideration of this request.