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July 9th, 2008 12:00 am JAMES PITKIN | News Stories

Courting Disaster

County employees raised red flags months ago about the manager responsible for the East County Justice Center fiasco.


IMAGE: Lukas Ketner

Multnomah County Chairman Ted Wheeler announced last week that huge problems with the East County Justice Center would prompt him to hire an outside manager to help the $109,000-a-year official responsible for the botched project.

Wheeler’s decision was just the latest blow to that official, Doug Butler, director of the county’s Facilities and Property Management Division.

Ten months ago, members of his staff blasted Butler and other managers in a scathing report [PDF] never seen by Butler’s bosses on the Board of Commissioners.

In that September 2007 analysis obtained by WW, the staff said Butler was “not familiar or interested enough with the day-to-day operations to effectively discuss accountability” and that he and other supervisors “appear out of touch with the concerns and effectiveness of employees in the field.”

Wheeler’s new plan to hire an outside manager for the East County center came after revelations of mismanagement in the project to build the long-sought shared facility for courtrooms, sheriff’s deputies and police in Gresham. It’s unclear how much the temporary position will pay or when it will start.

Since county commissioners approved the project in February 2007 using outdated cost estimates provided by Butler’s office, the price tag has doubled to $32 million. That’s on top of other screwups by Butler’s staff, like omitting basic requirements such as walls and hallways from the plan.

The scope of errors emerged in a June 24 meeting when a stunned Board of Commissioners grilled Butler’s staff while Butler was on a four-week motorcycle trip through the Southwestern states. He was still on vacation this week and unavailable for comment, according to county spokesman Shawn Cunningham.

Cunningham says Butler started a process after the staff criticism to address the problems. “It’s important to note that Doug and his management team take those concerns very seriously, “ Cunningham says. “There’s definitely more work to do.”

The Justice Center isn’t Butler’s first large misstep.

Butler, 62, was appointed by then-Gov. Neil Goldschmidt in 1988 to boost Oregon’s film business. He spent more than a year trying to bring an $11 million studio to St. Johns before investors backed out over concerns about higher-than-expected costs.

Butler was regional facilities manager for Metro in 1994, when the agency failed to secure a tenant for its former headquarters downtown. Metro had to pay $400,000 to escape its lease.

Former County Chairwoman Diane Linn hired Butler in 2002, just before an audit showed the county had wasted $28.9 million due to poor planning on major construction projects. Linn called Butler “a strong leader” who would bring the county back in line.

County Commissioner Jeff Cogen says he never heard of the criticism Butler’s staff leveled last fall. But if Cogen had, he would have asked for more detail.

“I would have wanted to learn more about it,” Cogen says. “It certainly raises questions relevant to what’s gone wrong [with the Justice Center].”

Bill Farver, Wheeler’s chief operating officer, says Butler is short of staff for large building projects such as the East County Justice Center. The county also is trying to build a new courthouse and buy the Lincoln Building downtown.

“There are just too many things going on for him to manage,” Farver says. “I think if it was just one project he would probably be doing fine.”

FACT: Butler is registered with the state as head of two companies: Pet Services Group and Luminous Images, a photo studio based in Butler’s St. Johns townhouse that charges $50 an hour.
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