The man responsible for running some of the city's largest venues—the Oregon Convention Center, the Portland Center for the Performing Arts and the Expo Center—is in the crosshairs of Metro Council President David Bragdon, the man who approves his budget. But through an unusual governing structure, Bragdon lacks the authority to fire him.
is the Chief Executive Officer of the Metropolitan Exposition and Recreation Commission, which in turn is part of Metro, the regional government that handles solid waste and land use and transportation planning, among other responsibilities.
Although MERC may not be a household name, its facilities are well-known to most Portlanders. And Woolson is one of the highest-paid public employees in Portland, with an annual salary of $184,000. He oversees a $40 million budget and the 1,800 events at MERC facilities (which include the Schnitzer Concert Hall and Newmark Theater downtown) that attract 2 million people each year.
But when the MERC board
held its monthly public meeting on May 27, the last agenda item was unusual. Agenda item 8.0 read, "Executive session for the purpose of reviewing and evaluating the employment-related performance of the MERC CEO/ General Manager.
By law, the public is barred from executive sessions. Reporters may attend but may not report on what they hear in the session. They can, however, use what they hear to do further reporting.
Yesterday, grim-faced board members and Bragdon entered an Expo Center meeting room at 2:10 p.m. and did not emerge until about 4 p.m. Woolson did not attend the executive session.
Under Oregon's public records law, WW
obtained two earlier letters from Bragdon to MERC board chairman Don Trotter expressing concern and displeasure with Woolson's performance.
In an August 2008 letter
(PDF), Bragdon wrote to MERC board chairman Trotter, discouraging MERC from giving Woolson a raise or bonus and criticizing Woolson's performance on two major issues that affect MERC: the proposed Columbia River Crossing bridge project, which would impact the Expo Center and the proposed Headquarters Hotel, adjacent to the convention center. Bragdon wrote:
With regard to the proposed Columbia River Crossing, our agency has extensive points of communication with the Oregon Department of Transportation, TriMet, and the City of Portland, and we need to use that influence in a concerted manner to maximize our effectiveness. The MERC General Manager's recent independent orchestration of testimony at the Metro Council, at the Portland City Council, and in other forums was confusing at best and counter-productive at worst, and indicates a lack of judgment about how to effectively advocate for our agency's interests.
Metro Councilors and senior staff need to be able to confidently rely upon the MERC General Manager to provide useful and unbiased information in our consideration of the proposed headquarters hotel project. Our expectation is that the General Manager will be responsible and meticulous in crafting a package, so that the Council can have a sound basis for determining whether or not the package is feasible and in the public interest. Currently, many Councilors do not have that sufficient level of confidence in the quality of the MERC General Manager's participation on this issue.
Despite that seemingly clear warning from its parent agency, the MERC board approved a raise of $9,000 to Woolson's then $175,000 salary and a $14,000 bonus for him. By charter, the board's seven members are appointed by the Metro Council president but retain the power to hire and fire MERC's CEO.
More recently, Bragdon took an even stronger tack in a Mar. 31, 2009 letter
(PDF), questioning the large increase in Woolson's executive office budget from $471,000 in 2007-08 to a proposed $878,000 for 2009-10. Bragdon wrote:
The new positions and the consulting services are at least in part performing functions that previous General Managers would have performed themselves, and so it appears that adding these positions and services is at least in part an indication that Mr. Woolson is not in fact adequately performing the duties of General Manager. As a result, expensive remedies in the form of new positions and consultants are being prescribed to make up for his deficiencies.
Mr. Woolson's compensation makes him one of the highest paid public employees in the entire state of Oregon, yet it is increasingly clear he is not performing well in the job. I urge you to consider the productivity and costs associated with the current management at MERC and take the step which is necessary to rectify the situation. Again, I make this request respectful of your role as stewards of our facilities, but also cognizant of my responsibility as the fiduciary guardian of our budget.
MERC Commission president Trotter, a retired architect from Milwaukie, says some members of the Commission agree with the criticisms of Woolson and some do not. He says the board has discussed the CRC and HQ Hotel concerns with Woolson, as well as the growth in the executive office budget and will be preforming a regularly scheduled evaluation of his performance in June.
As for Bragdon's request that the MERC board "rectify the situation" Trotter says "The MERC Commission has taken no action and nor have we been asked to do so in an official manner."
Asked whether he as board chairman had asked Woolson to resign, Trotter says, "I decline to comment as that's a personnel matter."
Because Woolson reports to the MERC board rather than directly Metro, his fate is in the MERC board's hands. Bragdon says that puts him in a difficult position.
"Responsibility and accountability are not lodged in the same place. That's not a good thing," Bradgon says. "We hold people at Metro to a very high standard and there's no reason MERC should be any different."
Bragdon says be believes Woolson needs to go.
"The reason I went in an executive session is to have the discussion in as frank and respectful way as possible," Bragdon says. "We've got a great [MERC] commission but ultimately I have to be accountable to the voters and taxpayers."
Woolson defends his performance. "Generally, I've enjoyed strong support from the MERC Commission over the past couple of years," Woolson says. "And I've received approval from my commission and the Metro Council for the decisions I've made."
Woolson says he was aware of yesterday's executive session but nobody has yet shared the substance of that meeting with him.