The consultant whom Multnomah County hired to coordinate one of its highest-profile initiatives, the development of a sobering and detox center, has a checkered background—at Multnomah County.
The consultant is Julie Dodge, the county’s former interim director of behavioral health. Dodge resigned under a cloud from her high-level position at the county last year only to be rehired immediately on a no-bid consulting contract to lead a project so critical that Multnomah County Chair Jessica Vega Pederson is directly overseeing it herself.
The project: the behavioral health emergency coordination network, also called BHECN. That unwieldy acronym has become shorthand for the lengthy, expensive and, so far, unsuccessful quest to replace a downtown sobering center that closed at the end of 2019. Even as the county is awash in money, it has struggled to make progress (“Surprise Intervention,” WW, July 19).
The shuttered detox center, run by the nonprofit Central City Concern for the Portland Police Bureau at 444 NE Couch St., served as a drop-off point for people experiencing extreme intoxication. For nearly 40 years, police and a roving CHIERS van brought people there instead of jails and hospital emergency rooms. In the 1990s, the facility served as many as 20,000 people a year. Now, it serves none, which helps explain why some of the most visibly intoxicated Portlanders occupy the same urban landscape daily.
For the past three years, as methamphetamine became more powerful, the pandemic raged, and fentanyl arrived, first responders had few places to take people in crisis. They left many on the streets to suffer, contributing to urban chaos, or brought them to ERs, an inefficient use of scarce resources.
Last year, the city of Portland solicited interest from contractors who might want to run a new version of the sobering center. When nobody responded, Multnomah County, the city’s partner in the Joint Office of Homeless Services, took over the project.
“There is a crisis on our streets, and addressing it is a top priority for Multnomah County and for me,” County Chair Jessica Vega Pederson told members of the BHECN executive committee—which includes top staff from Providence, Legacy, CareOregon, the city of Portland and leading social service nonprofits—last month.
On July 26, Vega Pederson told the committee that she personally was taking control.
“Following conversations with many of you and the Mayor’s Office, I have decided to take on the leadership of the BHECN Executive Committee,” Vega Pederson wrote. “We need to be able to move forward into action, following our shared values of being consumer-focused, trauma-informed, grounded in equity, transparent, and building consensus.”
But Vega Pederson’s pick to lead the charge had an equity problem.
In January 2021, Multnomah County issued a press release announcing a new interim director for one of the county’s core functions: behavioral health.
“Over the past three decades, Julie Dodge has worked as a social worker, a small business owner, a consultant and an academic. What hasn’t changed is her focus: building healthy communities through evidence-based design, community strength and equity,” the county wrote. “Throughout her career Dodge has worked to improve the systems that lead to disparate outcomes for Black, Indigenous and People of Color.”
Dodge earned a bachelor’s degree in Christian education from Biola University, a master’s degree in social welfare from UCLA, and a doctorate of ministry in leadership and global perspectives from George Fox University.
When the county announced Dodge’s hiring, she said she wanted to “build a more collaborative, less siloed division that places race at the forefront of its work.” The subtext, a lingering feeling after the high-profile 2017 firing of Tricia Tillman, the county’s director of public health, was that Black employees felt they got a raw deal at the county. Then-Chair Deborah Kafoury established a complaint investigation unit and pledged things would be different after Tillman’s firing.
“It’s not just words,” Dodge said when she started. “None of this is new, so let’s make it happen.”
What happened, as it turned out, was that at least one of Dodge’s Black subordinates didn’t think she treated him fairly. That employee, Frederick Staten, filed a complaint last year.
“I had a job change and started working directly with Julie Dodge and found it challenging, so much so that [I] needed HR in the room because I didn’t feel safe,” Staten said in an exit interview transcript WW obtained under a public records request. “I don’t use language like ‘hostile’ unless it is warranted and I am running out of reasons to think what other things they might be beside microaggressions or discrimination.”
Staten declined to comment, but county spokeswoman Julie Sullivan-Springhetti confirmed that the county’s complaint unit investigated Dodge. The result: “Discipline was imposed,” Sullivan-Springhetti says.
The county rejected WW’s request for its findings, but Dodge filled in some blanks.
“They did identify two incidents of microaggressions toward Frederick on my behalf,” Dodge says. “I accept responsibility for those. As we know with microaggressions, intent and impact are often very different.” Dodge says the conflict with Staten was an aberration and she underwent coaching from HR after the finding.
Dodge resigned from her $167,325 county position Dec. 16. On Jan. 2, records show, the county signed Dodge to a $225-an-hour, no-bid consulting contract to develop BHECN.
Sullivan-Springhetti says there’s nothing inconsistent about the county imposing discipline on Dodge after a race-based complaint and then hiring her to work on a project that promotes racial equity.
Normally, county contracts above $10,000 require competitive bidding, but in Dodge’s case, the county used a “sole qualified contractor exemption” that allows no-bid contracts of up to $150,000.
Unlike some state agencies and the Oregon Legislature, the county has no revolving-door rules to prevent former employees from being rehired as consultants—it even provided Dodge with a county email address for her work on BHECN.
“This kind of hiring is neither common, nor is it unprecedented,” Sullivan-Springhetti says of Dodge’s contract. “In a small number of cases, we have hired someone who retired, or who left the county, to work on a short-term basis or as an on-call employee if the county requires their specific body of knowledge.”
That explanation doesn’t satisfy County Commissioner Sharon Meieran, an emergency room physician who has been involved in BHECN discussions. She says Dodge’s hiring raises a number of important questions, but is emblematic of a larger problem that has resulted in no agreement among stakeholders of what BHECN is or will be after three years of talking.
“The broader issue is about the failure of leadership that got us to this point and the lack of decisive action to move any solution to address our behavioral health crisis,” she says. “Until we have a plan, we are kidding ourselves if we expect accountability.”
Vega Pederson says she was unaware Dodge had been disciplined until WW inquired, but she is satisfied county staff vetted her contract properly.
“To be clear, Julie Dodge’s work is no longer providing the level of management she used to provide as an employee—she is now contracting to provide behavioral health expertise,” Vega Pederson says. “I am providing leadership around our development of this network, as well as managing the dynamics of the executive committee with Julie Dodge consulting on policy.”