FORMER WILLAMETTE WEEK Managing News Editor Hank Stern started his new job doing public relations for Multnomah County on Wednesday, April 20, the morning after he put his last issue of the paper to bed.
It's not unusual, these days, for journalists to pass easily through the membrane of government. But Stern's move? It was anything but usual.
His tenure at Willamette Week was characterized by sharp scrutiny of public agencies' ethics, particularly when it came to journalists going to work for politicians. And, most curious, Stern's move was a sudden one—so sudden it raised questions about whether Multnomah County followed its own hiring policies. So we decided to pull some public records and make sure neither Stern, nor Multnomah County, had done anything untoward.
The trouble is, there were hardly any records available—no advertisement of the position, no résumés for competing candidates, not even a cover letter from Stern applying for the job. There was only an offer letter for the $80,000-a-year position, and an email from Stern linking to a Mercury blog post about his hire.
That's because Stern was offered the job over the wood stove in the Northeast Portland living room of Dave Austin, Multnomah County Chair Jeff Cogen's communications director, on March 29. Austin and Stern have known each other for 13 years—they were colleagues at the Oregonian until Stern left for Willamette Week in 2005—and they have shared a handful of drinks over the years.
Despite their history, Austin says he didn't need to interview other candidates or advertise because "you can't argue with Hank's skill set," even though Stern has never done public relations before.
Stern also says he's comfortable with his hiring—with a raise of $13,000 over the woman he's replacing, Tara Bowen-Biggs, who went to work for another county commissioner days before Stern met with Austin. Stern was "walled off" from county coverage at Willamette Week after taking the job, he told the Mercury.
At a time of budget challenges, Austin made up the $13,000 by cutting down on mileage reimbursements and memberships of professional organizations, he says.
At least one expert had no problem with the hire, ethically speaking.
"There's nothing wrong with a person hiring a longtime friend and colleague," emailed Larry Lorenz, media ethics professor at Loyola University in New Orleans. "It's done all the time, whether the individuals are journalists or stockbrokers or insurance salesmen. The question is whether Cogen broke the rules—the law—in hiring Stern."
But while Portland has strict rules about avoiding even the "appearance of impropriety" at city hall, the rules at the county building do not include that language. Nevertheless it requires some parsing to say whether Austin really did follow the rules.
The county's rules say "unclassified positions," like Stern's, "will be filled by competitive recruitment and selection procedures or by direct appointment"—except those directly responsible to elected officials."
Although 40 of the county's 4,500 employees are so-called "direct appointments," it's not clear what being "directly responsible to elected officials" means. And, ultimately, there's no arbiter outside the county to decide whether those rules have been followed. The Oregon Attorney General's office deferred to the Oregon Department of Administrative Services for an opinion, but that department only scrutinizes state officials. Meanwhile Austin referred us to the county's head of human resources, Travis Graves. But Graves serves at Cogen's whim and could be dismissed on the spot, without cause, if he displeased his boss.
"I serve at the pleasure of the chair, so honestly if he didn't like the color of my hair... [I could be fired]," says Graves, who naturally thought Cogen's behavior was above board.
Austin insists the county's policy was followed, though he didn't know of the policy's written existence before this newspaper contacted him to find out what it said.
"I don't know if there's a policy," he said, before going off to track one down.
Austin explains that although Stern reports to him, Stern still counts as a "direct appointment" under Cogen. Austin says his six-person, $650,000-a-year communications outfit within Cogen's office isn't technically a "department"—he called it a "non-department department"—and therefore isn't subject to the county's fair hiring rules. Ironically, one of the "department's" missions is to "promote transparency."
Cogen did not speak to Stern during the hiring process, so their relationship clearly has some room to develop. Meanwhile, it's difficult to tell whether Stern represents the best deal for taxpayers, and Austin admits he is hardly qualified to do the math.
"I mean, I led a department at the Oregonian, but luckily I was the head of the breaking news team," Austin says. "I didn't have to say, 'Hey, how much money do we have to go to Bend for this earthquake story?' or whatever. We just got to go, and somebody else handled the budget and I didn't have to worry about it. I am, admittedly, mathematically challenged."
Multnomah County Auditor Steve March also has no problem with the hire, and as an independently elected official it's his job to watch the county's purse strings. Although March said via email that some elected officials do follow more "traditional" hiring methods when recruiting staff.
Cogen wrote in an email that his office did not advertise the position because there was an "immediate need" to fill it, even though Austin let Bowen-Biggs leave immediately, instead of serving two weeks' notice as she'd offered. Cogen also views Portland's newsrooms as talent pools to be fished, it seems.
As Cogen wrote: "Newspapers across the country—whose staffs presumably are made up of skilled communicators—are contracting in size. That means talented people are looking elsewhere for work. I think that's an advantage to taxpayers if we can hire good people."
Most taxpayers, however, should probably not expect to be offered a shot at one of those jobs, fairly and openly, in the near future. And short of voting for someone else, there's really nothing they can do about it.