The County’s Freshly Appointed Homelessness Czar Resigns After Allegations He Bullied Women in the Office

Multiple people tell WW that Multnomah County Chair Jessica Vega Pederson was aware of the allegations as early as last fall.

Jessica Vega Pederson (Joseph Blake Jr.)

On April 15, a longtime adviser who Multnomah County Chair Jessica Vega Pederson selected to execute the county’s ambitious new homelessness plan resigned at her request, after just nine weeks on the job.

Chris Fick’s resignation marked a sudden end to seven years as Vega Pederson’s closest aide, the last year as chief of staff as she began a rocky tenure atop county government. In January, Vega Pederson appointed Fick, 43, to a newly created, director-level position with a $165,000 annual salary and a two-member staff to address the most critical issue plaguing the county: persistent and chronic homelessness, made more stubborn by rampant drug use.

But Fick’s pivotal role at the county also came with baggage from his previous job.

Vega Pederson asked Fick to resign less than three days after WW sent the county questions about allegations brought forward by six former and current county employees, all women, who allege Fick repeatedly belittled, sometimes shouted, and treated with contempt women who worked for and alongside the chair’s office.

In most cases, the women Fick allegedly bullied held positions below him in the county hierarchy. Women of color, several of the staffers allege, seemed to bear the brunt of his conduct.

All six women spoke to WW on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation, and did so before Fick’s resignation on Monday.

The actions they described occurred mostly in the past year, they said. The allegations did not include sexual harassment or physical misconduct, and it’s unclear whether they would have triggered Fick’s firing under county workplace rules.

The county is investigating one formal complaint about Fick filed on March 13.

But Fick’s alleged conduct stands in contrast to the stated values of equity and lifting up women and people of color that Vega Pederson and the county have long espoused, particularly when it comes to homelessness policy.

What’s more, multiple people tell WW that Vega Pederson was aware of the allegations as early as last fall.

“I wanted to share with you directly that I asked Chris to resign, and he did so,” Vega Pederson told WW in a Monday afternoon email. “I’m committed to building a team that is in line with my values and the values of Multnomah County. It has become clear to me that changes were needed. While there have not been any findings of wrongdoing, I want to make sure that these issues don’t distract from the critical work at hand.”

In an emailed statement, Fick told WW he denies “the general allegations” and says that “at no time did the county apprise me of any pattern of behavior which included demeaning, rude or sometimes belittling conduct towards female staffers, nor was there ever an investigation.”

Fick added: “I valued all of my colleagues.”

Fick served as Vega Pederson’s chief of staff for seven years before she appointed him in January to the newly created position of director of the Homelessness Response System.

The announcement came on the heels of an optimistic blueprint that Vega Pederson and Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler laid out for how the city and county would tackle homelessness in the coming years, a joint endeavor that officials hoped would mend the fractious relations between the two governments.

“This new role increases the commitment of county leadership to developing meaningful, sustainable, long-term solutions to the housing crisis in our communities,” Vega Pederson wrote in the Jan. 19 announcement.

Prior to Fick’s resignation on Monday, county spokesman Denis Theriault said the director would work in parallel with the Joint Office of Homeless Services, not above or below it. The director would lead a two-member team and “interact closely with [the Joint Office] as an internal partner on matters related to the homelessness crisis.”

A copy of the position description provided by the county says the director “will coordinate, convene, and drive the goals of the Homelessness Response System.” Perhaps most crucially, Fick would “lead efforts to manage data and reporting,” an area in which the county has historically struggled (“Data Plan,” WW, April 3).

Among other job duties was one that would raise questions when Fick’s selection was announced: “Directs and approves…the work of a diverse workforce, including the implementation of workforce equity initiatives.”

County spokeswoman Julie Sullivan-Springhetti says Vega Pederson directly appointed Fick, which “is common for positions that report to elected officials.” The county did not open the position to other applicants.

The timing of Fick’s appointment, on Jan. 19, now raises questions whether the chair’s appointment of him to a position outside her office—but that would still report directly to her—was related to concerns that women in Vega Pederson’s office brought up with her about Fick’s conduct.

“In the late fall and winter of last year, I became aware of specific issues related to my team. I spent time with employees to understand their concerns,” Vega Pederson tells WW, saying that she “took this feedback into account as I made changes to my team in December and January.” Vega Pederson adds that she holds “people accountable for their actions” and that “Chris is no exception,” though she would not say whether she had spoken to Fick about the women’s concerns.

The stories of the six current or former county employees who spoke to WW about Fick’s behavior were similar, although they described different experiences. What the stories had in common was that Fick used a condescending tone and was dismissive of the input of female staffers.

The women who spoke to WW say Fick displayed a pattern of being rude and flippant to female staffers, both during staff meetings and in one-on-one conversations, often cutting them off midsentence or leaving meetings abruptly.

“There were times when he would just walk out of a meeting, upset, and didn’t want to hear what people were saying,” says one former aide in the chair’s office. “Staff were afraid to bring the concerns to the chair because they were afraid she was more loyal to him.”

In more serious instances, the women allege, Fick would lose his temper and berate women staffers. According to one staffer who worked outside of the chair’s office, a female staffer in the chair’s office cried twice while speaking to her after interactions with Fick.

“I’ve seen two women of color cry after interactions with Fick due to his anger,” the woman says.

A top staffer in another county commissioner’s office recalls a September phone call about homelessness in which Fick “just started yelling at me.”

“I don’t feel emotionally safe with him,” that staffer says. “When he comes up to my floor, I shut my door and hide. In terms of screaming and yelling and berating, I’ve experienced that myself.”

Another female staffer recalls that during a meeting of the chair’s staff, Fick “raised his voice and cut me off repeatedly” while she offered feedback on a policy matter. “He had a temper,” she says.

Not everyone had such an experience. Two women who previously worked under Fick say he was a communicative, kind boss who handled conflict well.

“I thought he was a supportive boss and was responsive if I had concerns,” says Tia Williams, who worked as Vega Pederson’s policy director in 2019, when she was a county commissioner. Williams is Black. “I felt there was space given to that.”

Olivia Cleaveland, who worked as Vega Pederson’s constituent relations staffer when she was a county commissioner, says Fick was “very thoughtful” when giving her feedback on her work and “really encouraging of me to expand my responsibilities.”

“He was a really supportive boss,” recalls Cleaveland, who left the county in February 2023. “He cushioned me a lot from external pressures of the job, and he’d do his best to stick his neck out in situations where I was getting heat.”

However, it’s also the case that since last fall, three women in the chair’s office have taken personal leave. One has since left the chair’s office. One of the women confirmed that her leave was related to Fick’s conduct, and while the other two declined to comment, others familiar with the situation say their leaves were related to Fick.

Moreover, four women on the chair’s staff in October met at the cafe Petite Provence in Southeast Portland for breakfast to talk about how to address Fick’s behavior. According to three of the four women present at the time, they met specifically to talk about Fick; one of the women recommended they keep individual logs of Fick’s conduct.

“Some of us tried to decide what to do about Chris’ behavior, and to discuss potential consequences of making a formal complaint,” one of the women at the meeting recalls, adding, “In my time I’ve had three different women, on three different occasions, cry or tear up to me explaining Chris’ behavior to them.”

According to three women who spoke to WW, Vega Pederson met individually with at least three female staffers in the fall and winter to talk about Fick’s conduct.

On Jan. 19, Vega Pederson announced Fick’s new position.

Fick made $188,640 a year as Vega Pederson’s chief of staff. In his short-lived position as director, Fick made $165,000.

On Monday, when Fick resigned at the request of the chair, he accepted a severance package of $25,000 plus one month’s health care benefits.

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