<<The alleged workplace conduct by Sam Adams that Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler says prompted him to fire his senior mayoral adviser consisted of belittling, interrupting and yelling at multiple female employees in roughly a dozen instances over 16 months, public records show.
The experiences left several female employees in tears, humiliated and even fearful they might lose their jobs, records indicate.
It’s unclear, however, whether Adams was fully informed of the complaints at the time they were made, counseled to improve his behavior or given consequences if he did not. At least two supervisors who contacted human resources on behalf of women who complained wrote that Adams should be told his behavior was out of line, coached to do better or required never to repeat it, not fired, according to records.
At least seven city employees complained to the mayor’s office or human resources about Adams’ conduct — particularly toward women — after the longtime City Hall fixture returned as Wheeler’s director of strategic innovations two years ago, redacted documents provided to The Oregonian/OregonLive late Friday show.
The complaints allege Adams disparaged city employees, talked over people and sometimes shouted. In some cases, he asked or demanded that city employees complete work tasks he assigned them, even when they were not under his direct supervision, complaints charge.
“This was one of the most unprofessional experiences I’ve had, not just at the city, but in my career,” an employee in the city attorney’s office wrote. Another city employee wrote that she left a 2021 meeting with Adams feeling “accosted and upset.”
The records do not indicate how many of the complaints were formally investigated or if Adams faced prior warnings or reprimands. Adams told The Oregonian/OregonLive on Saturday that he believes no complaint underwent formal investigation.
Adams’ role in the administration was to be a power player who would use his political savvy and deep familiarity with the workings of City Hall to execute the mayor’s vision and bring about rapid action on Wheeler’s priorities.
“I was given the mandate to help the mayor get the city back on track,” Adams told the newsroom Saturday. “At times, as we struggled to make progress, I felt a great duty to insist we find a more successful way forward.”
As part of that, he said, he did not intend to cause anyone to experience trauma at work or fear for their job. But he admitted that his hard-charging style and unapologetic backing of the mayor’s agenda rankled some people and angered others.
Many of the complaints about his workplace conduct arose from policy discussions involving some of the most contentious issues facing the city, including police response to protests, graffiti removal and homelessness, he said.
“I set out to work on the issues,” he said. “These are difficult issues. I’m passionate about my positions and others are passionate about theirs.”>>
<<Records show that staff members in Mayor Ted Wheeler’s office were warned of former staffer Sam Adams’ “theme” of poor interactions with female employees since at least October 2021—more than a year prior to Adams’ reported resignation from the Mayor’s office. At least six women who worked with Adams brought their complaints to the city’s Bureau of Human Resources over the past 16 months, with the first complaints of Adams’ alleged unprofessional behavior beginning just six months after he joined Wheeler’s staff.>>
<<While Wheeler says he learned of the multiple complaints about Adams’ behavior just over a week ago, email records show that key members of Wheeler’s staff have been notified of repeated allegations against Adams over the past 16 months.
According to city emails obtained by the Mercury Saturday through a records request, allegations of Adams’ unprofessional behavior began in August 2021. In an August 10, 2021, email to Wheeler’s chief of staff Bobby Lee, interim director of the Office of Community and Civic Life Michael Montoya recounted an incident during a meeting between a Civic Life employee and Adams. The female employee, whose name is redacted from the records shared with the Mercury, alleged that Adams was “dismissive, strong arm in tone, and rude” during a meeting in which the employee raised concerns about a city code change Adams’ requested.
According to Montoya, because Adams made references to the employee’s work in relation to city funding, the employee’s professional advancement was threatened and she no longer felt comfortable working directly with Adams.
While Montoya also notified human resources officials about the incident, Montoya told Lee that it was up to him whether a formal investigation should be launched into Adams’ behavior.
“At the very least, Sam clearly needs some seriously worded guidance on harnessing his dedication and passion for making a difference,” Montoya wrote. “This is a generous statement.”
Lee replied that he would “circle back” with Montoya once he reviewed the issue. It appears no formal investigation was launched into the incident. In an email Saturday, Lee told the Mercury he would respond to questions next week about whether the mayor’s office took action in response to the early allegations against Adams.
Less than a month later, another female employee complained to the city’s human resources staff about Adams’ behavior in a meeting. On September 3, 2021, a city employee—whose name is also redacted—had a call with Adams, seemingly to check-in following a brawl between Proud Boys and counter protesters in an empty parking lot in East Portland in late August 2021. According to the employee, several other city employees were also on the call, including Lee and Wheeler’s deputy chief of staff Sara Morrissey. During the call, the employee said that Adams disagreed with her approach to an issue and interrupted her several times, prompting her to leave the meeting early because she felt “accosted and upset.” The employee said she left the meeting in tears and later contacted the Bureau of Human Resources to express concern that Adams treats men and women differently in the workplace.
According to emails between Chief Human Resources Officer Cathy Bless and Director of Employee and Labor Relations Ron Zito discussing the incident, the same employee told Bless that “woman [sic] are leaving the Mayor’s office because of Sam and are afraid to say anything.” Several of the employees who explicitly complained about Adams’ behavior to the Bureau of Human Resources said that they have talked with other women working in city hall who have had similar experiences with Adams.
“A next step may be for you and I to have a conversation with the Mayor about a theme of failed interactions female staff are having with Sam,” Zito said in an email to Bless on September 1, 2021.
Wheeler’s office and Lee did not respond to questions on whether they had a meeting with human resources representatives in September 2021.
However, meeting notes taken by Zito on October 6, 2021, state that the Bureau of Human Resources was aware of a “theme” of Adams’ behavior with women employees and that they “have discussed this with the Mayor’s Office.”
In September and October 2021, human resources staff spoke with two additional women complaining about Adams’ unprofessional behavior, including one city employee who said she left the Mayor’s office because of the way she was treated by Adams. The former mayor’s office employee said she shared her concerns about Adams with Lee, but was worried Adams’ behavior would continue to be tolerated because his expertise was valued by the Mayor’s office.
According to Bless, Adams met with human resources staff twice to talk about his behavior during his most recent tenure at city hall. It’s unclear when those meetings happened or who initiated them.
While the majority of the complaints against Adams were recorded in 2021, it didn’t appear to threaten his position in the mayor’s office until December 2022, when City Attorney Robert Taylor notified human resources staff of complaints against Adams from two female lawyers in Taylor’s office. According to one of the city’s lawyers, Adams was disrespectful of a meeting time with the lawyers, got angry because he felt he was not properly briefed on a lawsuit the city was involved in, and acted condescendingly to the attorney by asking her to repeat back what he had said to her to make sure she understood.
“This was one of the most unprofessional experiences that I’ve had, not just at the City, but in my career,” the lawyer said in an email to Taylor. “The initial meeting left me in tears as we had to walk over to meet with [redacted], and I had to quickly push back those tears so that I could have the meeting that Sam had now made us late.”
Taylor emailed Adams on December 16, saying that Adams had inappropriately taken his frustration out on “the hardest working and most professional lawyers” in the city attorney’s office.
“They described the interactions to me, and I want to express to you that how you handled it was not acceptable,” Taylor wrote to Adams.
“They do not want an apology from you. They just do not want it to happen again. I share that expectation.”
Following Taylor’s complaint, city emails indicate that human resources officials met with Lee in early January 2023 to discuss the slew of complaints against Adams, noting that Adams’ alleged behavior was against the city’s administrative rules that prohibit “discourteous treatment of the public or other employees, offensive conduct or conduct unbecoming a City employee.”
On January 5, 2023, Bless provided Lee with a list of talking points seemingly in preparation for a conversation between Lee and Adams, during which Lee would inform Adams that his position in the Mayor’s office was being terminated.
“As you are aware, you are in a position that serves at the pleasure of the Mayor and he has opted to terminate your employment today,” Bless wrote as a suggestion for what Lee should say to Adams.>>