Portland Commissioner Nick Fish wanted to fire administrator Dean Marriott … – OregonLive.com
Portland Commissioner Nick Fish wanted to fire Dean Marriott, the city’s now-ousted sewer administrator, as early as May 23 but couldn’t immediately follow through because Marriott held unique job protections, according to newly released documents.
Marriott threatened to sue Portland after being placed on paid leave Oct. 21 but he ultimately resigned Jan. 7. In exchange for dropping his legal case, Marriott received one year’s salary, or $199,160, plus six months’ health care and $49,000 in legal fees.
The nearly $200,000 salary payment is Portland’s most expensive golden parachute in the history of its targeted severance program.
Fish’s lengthy conflict with Marriott is illuminated in documents obtained by The Oregonian/OregonLive through the state’s public records law.
While Marriott’s November tort claim alleged that Fish wanted to get rid of Marriott for political reasons, the new documents provide additional insight about the tension between Fish, who took over the bureau in June 2013, and Marriott, a distinguished administrator who had a reputation for protecting his bureau and being dismissive of City Hall politics.
According to Marriott’s Nov. 12 appeal to the city’s Civil Service Board, Fish provided Marriott with “a kitchen sink of alleged unsatisfactory performance” issues in a May 23 written reprimand and also clearly stated his desire to fire Marriott.
Fish is quoted as telling Marriott, “were you an at-will employee (as are all other City bureau directors), I would be terminating your employment,” according to Marriott’s appeal.
Marriott served 20 years as the city’s director of the Bureau of Environmental Services and, most notably, helped deliver the city’s $1.4 billion Big Pipe project on time and on budget. But Marriott also was the last bureau director with civil-service protections, which voters eliminated in 2001, making it difficult to fire him without cause.
In 2005, then-Mayor Tom Potter tried to force out Marriott, citing a “need for change.” But Marriott refused to resign. Marriott later reported to Commissioner Dan Saltzman, who rated Marriott’s performance “commendable,” according to Marriott’s most recent performance review, from 2012.
Marriott’s departure is traced to the Columbia Building, an environmental services office project that tripled in price to more than $11.5 million. Reports by KOIN and Willamette Week spotlighted the elaborate design and swelling budget amid a heated political campaign asking voters to strip water and sewer services from the City Council’s oversight.
Voters overwhelmingly rejected the ballot measure on May 20. Three days after the election, Fish met with Marriott to lay out his concerns.
Marriott received a written reprimand May 23, with the Columbia Building at the top of a list of issues, according to the appeal filed by Marriott’s attorney, Charese Rohny.
“Commissioner Fish highlights his ultimate goal to terminate Mr. Marriott and his implicit disdain for Mr. Marriott’s due process rights,” Rohny wrote in the Nov. 12 appeal. Fish also told Marriott he would terminate him, if he could, according to the appeal.
Fish in a June 2 letter went on to tell Marriott “you will wholeheartedly embrace my reform,” according to Marriott’s appeal.
The city declined to release the appeal until last week, after Marriott agreed to resign. The city now refuses to release the documents mentioned in Marriott’s appeal, citing a public records exemption for disciplinary actions.
At a Civil Service Board hearing, Marriott’s attorney planned to argue that Marriott did not receive due process when Fish placed him on paid administrative leave effective Oct. 21.
Marriott’s leave corresponded with release of a city audit of the Columbia Building, which Fish and Mayor Charlie Hales requested. At the time, Fish also announced that he hired an outside law firm to determine “whether laws, rules, ethical guidelines have been violated.”
Marriott’s attorney contended that Fish placed Marriott on leave without providing any specific explanation, other than referencing vague “serious and troubling issues” with the Columbia project. Marriott’s attorney also planned to argue that Marriott didn’t receive due process and was being disciplined twice for the same issue.
“By suspending Mr. Marriott for an alleged offense for which he had previously received a written reprimand, the City has attempted to punish him twice for essentially the same offense,” Rohny wrote.
Marriott had been scheduled to present his case to the Civil Service Board on Jan. 8. But the appeal was canceled because of Marriott’s Jan. 7 settlement agreement.
Because Marriott agreed to resign, Fish shifted the scope of the outside investigation to a “lessons learned” report. Fish plans a national search to find Marriott’s replacement.
As part of his settlement agreement, Marriott received a glowing letter signed by Hales.
“Dean, you have contributed over 20 years of outstanding public service to the City of Portland and the City is a better place for it,” Hales wrote in the Jan. 7 letter. “I am grateful for your leadership of BES and your dedication to the public interest.”
— Brad Schmidt