Port of Siuslaw fires Steven Leskin: Parts I and II

Port manager fired ‘with cause’ — sexual harassment claim unsubstantiated

Part I

(Editor’s note: Information provided for this story was ascertained from public records, meeting tapes, local and state agency documents and confirmed sources. By law, we are not allowed to include any information obtained during executive session.)

After an executive session held Monday, Aug. 8, the Port of Siuslaw commission unanimously voted to terminate the employment of Port Manager Steven Leskin with cause. The decision comes after allegations of insubordination and inappropriate behavior, followed by a three-month paid administrative leave due to an investigation over sexual harassment claim.

The five-member commission included Terry Duman, Nancy Rickard, Mike Buckwald, David Huntington and Bill Meyer.

Meyer, who is new to the commission, had not worked with Leskin; Meyer replaced past commissioner Ron Caputo, who was the commission’s president during Leskin’s tenure.

In a statement regarding the dismissal, Port Attorney Jim Brewer stated, “The port has a policy not to discuss personnel matters, but it is fair to say that the port was unable to substantiate the sexual harassment complaint.”

The termination is a culmination of a year’s worth of bitter arguments and public outbursts that resulted in accusations of fraud, collusion, illegal voting, insubordination, misleading the Oregon Government Ethics Commission (OGEC), misuse of taxpayer funds and, most recently, sexual harassment.

While disagreements between the port commissioners and Leskin were minor after Leskin’s initial hiring on Feb. 1, 2016, tensions arose incrementally until March 17, culminating in the commission's unanimous decision to terminate Leskin on Monday.

At a Feb. 15 public meeting, Leskin proposed a port resolution that would clarify what constitutes a commercial vessel versus a recreational designation. Leskin said he was concerned that people were “gaming” the port by erroneously claiming they were commercial fishing vessels but not actually fishing.

The annual moorage rate for a 38-foot commercial vessel (fees fluctuate based on ship size) was $997. Recreational was $1,680, a large source of income for the port.

“Those fishing licenses cost 25 bucks,” Leskin said. “Then they’re not fishing. We hear people bragging about it.”

Leskin stated he knew of at least four boats that were never leaving their slips, which Duman agreed with. “We know the boats,” he said.

But the resolution proposed by Leskin was vague, with no set criteria on how to judge what a commercial vessel was.

“It needs to be black and white,” Duman insisted.

On March 15, Leskin came back with a more definitive resolution that laid out six criteria for commercial vessels:

  1. Complies with all local, state and federal laws and regulation.    
  2. Complies with all Port of Siuslaw requirements for moorage.
  3. A commercial vessel is any vessel engaged in a maritime trade, the fishery or carries passengers for hire.
  4. A “historic vessel” is defined as any vessel which is at least 50 years old.
  5. The port manager, in his sole discretion, shall determine what constitutes a commercial or historic vessel.
  6. Any vessel which meets the definition of a “commercial” or “historic” shall receive the commercial discount.

The commission welcomed the list, except criterion five.

In a tense exchange, Buckwald said he would refuse to sign off on the resolution, stating that criterion five was, “unacceptable to me. I will not vote for that when it’s in there.”

Buckwald explained that if Leskin had sole discretion over what constitutes a commercial vessel, then the rest of the clauses would be void, allowing Leskin to discriminate against any type of vessel he sees fit.

Leskin’s argument was that if the port manager did not have discretion regarding these issues, the commissioners would have to be constantly involved with determining if vessels were commercial or not. If this happened, delays could occur, particularly if commissioners disagreed on a definition.

“If you’re going to scratch it, then I’m withdrawing the motion,” said Leskin.

“Then bring us back something next month, because it needs to be clarified to all the people,” said Buckwald. “Not just to (the audience) here but to everybody. It’s important, Steven.”

The only commissioner who didn’t question the clause immediately was Rickard, who asked, “Where does the manager’s discretion come? Are we telling the manager every other little thing he can do?”

Duman, clearly agitated, replied, “No, we’re only going to tell him one time. I don’t agree with this resolution, Nancy. If you agree with the resolution, you can vote for this resolution. I don’t care.”

Duman pointed out that if the other five rules were followed, it wouldn’t matter; tight regulations would make most complaints void.

A vote was taken and the resolution was passed, without criterion five, the only dissenting vote coming from Rickard.

On March 20, just five days after the board struck down the fifth clause, Leskin filed a complaint against Duman and Huntington to the Oregon Government Ethics Commission (OGEC):

“Commissioner Duman attended this meeting. He failed to disclose that he was a moorage customer, and hence his conflict. He engaged in discussions about the Resolution. After another commissioner, Mike Buckwald (his brother-in-law) suggested a modified Resolution, Commissioner Duman voted in favor of the Resolution (sic).”

He enclosed information on moorage contracts for both commissioners and directed the Ethics Commission to view a video of the public hearing at “about the 24-minute mark.”

Leskin leveled two accusations at the commissioners, the first being collusion between Buckwald, Duman and Huntington, and the second that Duman and Huntington voted “yes” to protect their financial interests.

The first accusation stems from Buckwald’s failure to disclose that he was Duman’s brother-in-law — an accusation made because Duman was the person who nominated Buckwald to the board.

In his complaint, Leskin suggested Buckwald modified the resolution to help Duman, who also voted in favor.

By bringing Huntington into the complaint, Leskin indicated what he saw as a conspiratorial voting block: Duman connected to Buckwald through marriage, Huntington through commercial interests.

However, there is no public evidence or documentation to support this. In fact, a sample survey of votes cast by the commission over the past 12 months (June 2016 to June 2017) show 26 were made, 22 of which were unanimous and only four that were split. In those four, Buckwald voted against Duman half the time, as did Huntington.

Recordings of the meetings show the three disagreeing with each other often, particularly Duman and Buckwald.

The second complaint was that the Huntington and Duman voted “yes” to protect their financial interest.

If there’s one statement made by Duman that could be interpreted as supporting Leskin’s claim, it would be a comment he made at the end of the March 15 meeting on an unrelated issue:

“The only reason I want to stay on this commission is, if I’m not on this commission, my boat’s the next to go. It’s already been tried to get kicked out of this port once by the last manager.”

Duman’s statement could be taken one of two ways, either meaning he’s strictly on the board to protect his commercial boat, or he’s describing himself as a “class.”

According to the Oregon Government Standards and Practices Laws, Section III, Article 8 states that a board member may sometimes vote for a resolution that gives him financial gain, as long as casting the vote affects other people “to the same degree.”

For example, a city counselor would have good cause to live in the city they are governing. If they did, however, there would inevitably be financial conflicts involved such as raising a gas tax or drafting stricter building codes. Instead of having the counselor recuse themselves every vote, they are distinguished as a “class,” i.e. citizens of the city.

In this case, Duman and Huntington are also distinguished as a class: Commercial fishermen.

In this scenario, Duman’s concerns about being kicked out of the port if Leskin had absolute authority to determine what class of vessel Duman owned could be valid. However, his concern would not just be for himself but all fishermen in his class.

OGEC took a more simple approach to Leskin seven days later, stating in its report:

“After reviewing the materials you submitted and the meeting video to which you referred, it does not appear that the decision that the commissioners were making had or could have any financial impact on the commissioners themselves.”

Leskin said he had been attempting to right the port’s financial ship for months, stating, “We want to put things in a unified, logical way” in a Sept. 21, 2016, meeting.

In March 2016, an increase in revenue of $20,000 was reported from the year prior. Then, in April 2016, income increased by $16,000 while expenses decreased $10,000.

In his State of the Port address Jan 18, 2017, Caputo stated, “Under the leadership of Port Manager Steven Leskin, the port has increased revenue and decreased expenses.”

Although the general funds did lower from time to time, this was primarily due to the renovations the port had made to the facilities and other projects it was working on.

Leskin attempted to raise funds in a number of ways, one being a requirement for moorage insurance. In 2015, a 30-gallon oil spill occurred, costing the port $6,000 to clean, according to Leskin.

“I look out on our fleet and I see an aging fleet,” Leskin told the commission in July 2016. “A lot of old boats, boats that aren’t cared for. I see these as liabilities waiting to happen.”

Boat insurance is partially determined by the size of the vessel, but Leskin quoted a $1 million policy for a commercial vessel at roughly $300 a month, which the board supported enthusiastically. In addition, Leskin began charging late fees on moorage customers, with collections being made and lawyers contacted in some instances.

But the collections quickly led to complaints.

In a March 31, 2017, meeting, Leskin pulled a year’s worth of data from the reservations systems comment section.

He stated that the port’s overall score was an A-, explaining, “When I go through people’s comments, tons of comments, consistently people say nice things about us. We see people bring us flowers. I see people bringing (employee) Kelly (Stewart) sweets. People bring us pizza. We are doing fine.”

Those comments, however, were from people checking out; short timers and RV residents.

The commissioners, meanwhile, were seeing a completely different story in their public meetings from moorage customers. The first major complaint came Aug. 17, 2016, from James Freeman. Wanting to moor his recreational vessel long term, Freeman said he had run into problems with Leskin and the staff over getting a permanent slip; On Feb. 15, Gordon Owen lodged a complaint that led to a protracted argument with the board, lasting months (Siuslaw News, May 24, 2017); On March 15, Len Christensen complained that after revamping his boat, he was denied his commercial discount: He was a tuna fisherman and had a license, with insurance; On April 19, moorage customer Steve Starnes recounted a time when Leskin asked him to move his electrical cords from over the dock to under the dock, a practice he felt unsafe.

“He absolutely does not know what he’s doing around marine operations,” Starnes said. “I don’t know who hired this person for this position, but they definitely need to look into that because that could become a dangerous issue — a dangerous issue for everyone.”

But it was an explosive public meeting March 15 involving David Swinney and Michelle Culwell, who have been moorage customers for 12 years, that brought the discord between the port commission and its manager to a whole new level.

At the beginning of the meeting, Culwell, who leases the moorage with Swinney, stood up to make official complaints to the commission. In her hand was a manila binder overflowing with paperwork detailing their position.

“When I went to renew our moorage agreement on Feb. 3, (the employee) said she wasn’t going to take our money because we were late. They were going to put us on a month-to-month.”

The month-to-month fee is more costly than the annual fee. For example, an annual fee for a vessel up to 20 feet is $840. The monthly rate is $132, or $1,584 a year.

Culwell insisted that she never received any bills or reminders and that the staff refused to accept her payments.

There were also issues with her insurance, particularly arguments about the boat length. Culwell said that her boat was 35 feet, but port documents showed 37 feet — a difference of $167 for an annual rate.

Culwell said she tried to convince the port, but staff would not listen. Culwell then stated she received threatening letters from the port.

“The threats and the belligerence originates in the office. It doesn’t come from us. And it got worse throughout the month with the way port staff treated us. We still don’t have a moorage agreement. We’re still on a month-to-month at the discretion of the port manager, who has sole discretion to throw us out if he deems it. I would just like to have some fair treatment.”

At the end of the meeting, after the commercial designation had been discussed, Leskin read a prepared statement describing the issue from the port’s perspective. In it, Leskin explained that Swinney had come into the office to pay his moorage bill, but was told that Kelly Stewart, who usually handles moorage leases, was not in the office due to illness.

“I approached Swinney and asked what I could do,” Leskin said. “He produced documents stating his vessel was 35 feet and not 37 feet. He then demanded to pay his moorage bill and I stated he had to wait for Kelly.”

Leskin said Swinney became belligerent and accused the port of wanting his boat.

“Swinney began to yell at the staff and refused to leave,” Leskin said. “A police officer, who was at the port on other business, arrived and Swinney began to leave. ... On the way out of the office, Swinney called Kelly a ‘c--t.’”

Several obscenities, which were described by Leskin in full detailed from a prepared script in front of video cameras, continued. This enraged the commission, in particular Duman, who didn’t directly mention the language but chastised Leskin for not accepting the payment.

“If you can’t take his money, who can? You’ve got to sit here and wait for Kelly to take the money? Something’s wrong with that scenario. You should have taken his money and the situation would have de-escalated right there. End of story,” said Duman. “I don’t care how much authority you think you have, if it’s not in the policies and the ordinances, don’t assume it. There comes a time when you can’t keep pushing people.”

In discussing the incident at a later meeting, commissioners were unsure why Leskin used the obscenities verbatim, rather than alluding to the language.

Caputo speculated that it was retaliation for Culwell’s negative comments about Leskin.

“I’m sure that he was upset having heard the complaints from Michelle Culwell, but the reading of the events and incident with the offensive language was not appropriate at a public port meeting,” Caputo said.

Of the incident, Huntington stated, “That was the most inappropriate thing I’ve ever heard in my life.”

Attending the meeting, was Florence City Councilor Ron Preisler, who said, “The port meeting this week was a good example of how not to have a public forum. There was extreme disrespect shown by most of the commissioners, audience and port manager.”

Part II

The tensions between the commission and Leskin had been brewing for some time, which Rickard pointed out at the Feb. 15, 2017, meeting.

On Leskin’s Jan. 30 evaluation, Rickard believed the commissioners were unconstructive in guiding Leskin to what they deemed success.

In a prepared statement, Rickard read, “Mr. Leskin received ‘meets expectations’ on 12 of the critical areas with a few ‘needs improvement’ scores, such as updating information, communication between manager and commission and carrying out assignments requested by the commission.

“These items were not addressed one by one giving time for a reply from the Manager,” Rickard continued.

Rickard pointed out that Leskin sent the commissioners a weekly report by email. “I’m not aware of assignments not carried out or lack of updating information,” she said.

She went on to praise Leskin on his work on the “many problems facing the port,” adding that she felt “commissioners have the responsibility to support the manager and staff recommendations and do their share in the communication process.”

At the Jan. 30, 2017, meeting, Rickard spoke of a performance evaluation for Leskin with the possibility of a four percent raise.

Just a few months earlier on Aug. 17, a wage increase was approved by unanimous vote, with Duman stating, “I think for the record that he did receive a ‘good to excellent’ evaluation by every member of the board.”

But by Jan. 30, the commission’s attitude had changed.

Duman described Leskin’s performance as “good to excellent,” but also said, “In my four years I’ve been here, I’ve never seen so many letters from attorneys across my desk here.”

Duman went on to say that if there was room for improvement, it would be Leskin’s customer service and conflict resolution skills. He stated Leskin was “adequately compensated” and did not suggest giving Leskin a raise.

Leskin pointed out that, “Staff receives four percent a year. I would just ask to stay current with what everyone else receives in raise.”

Caputo and Rickard voted for the raise, but the others abstained and Leskin’s raise was denied.

Though this was well before the Swinney incident, Leskin and the commission had begun to butt heads on a variety of issues.

In a June 16, 2016, meeting, Leskin proposed a requirement that would put $15,000 aside each year into special projects, particularly maintenance, based on an in depth analysis of the upcoming costs to the port prepared over a long period of time by Leskin and the staff.

The report focused on life expectancies of port assets, i.e. how long a building lasts, projected years it will last and the costs of repairing the building.

Leskin wanted to make saving the $15,000 mandatory.

“We have to budget with discipline, and we have to save for the future,” Leskin explained. “Our priority is that we have to save to the future. That’s why it was written without wiggle room.”

Buckwald disagreed, saying “Why make it mandatory? This just says if you don’t have $15,000 in, that means you gotta cut something else.”

“To my way of thinking, it says ‘saving for a future event is a priority,’” replied Leskin.

The somewhat heated discussion ended with Buckwald forcing Leskin to cut the mandate.

This happened throughout much of Leskin’s tenure. Valid points were made on both sides of the arguments, but as time wore on it turned heated and personal. Gradually, Leskin’s defenses for his policies became more forceful, as did the commissioners’ push-back to them. By the time the discussion about commercial vessels came around on March 15, the demand for anger management had entered the discourse.

In that meeting, Buckwald accused Leskin of actively seeking to be discriminatory with the “sole discretion” rule, something Leskin had never hinted at throughout the conversation:

Buckwald: “You set forth the criteria. You want to break that.”

Leskin: “I don’t want to break that.”

Buckwald: “Yes you do. That’s what that says.”

Leskin: “Please don’t accuse me. Please don’t accuse me.”

Buckwald: “You know what, you need a little bit of work on some anger management. Control that a little bit, won’t you please?”

The situation finally came to a head during a special March 31, 2017, disciplinary meeting to discuss Leskin’s behavior at the March 15 meeting, two weeks earlier.

Caputo opened the meeting by saying, “I know the Bible says ‘eye for an eye,’ but, being somewhat of a Christian, I say ‘turn the other cheek.’”

The board proceeded to systematically list a litany of complaints and demands of Leskin.

In addition, Leskin’s use of offensive language in a public setting was questioned.

Buckwald stated he couldn’t dispute Leskin’s retelling of the incident because he wasn’t there, but believed Leskin should have hinted at the strong language, not repeated it verbatim.

Leskin countered that this wasn’t the first time staff had issues with Swinney, which was made more disturbing by the fact that Swinney was running for port commissioner in the May 2017 election. This, Leskin argued, was why he read the letter verbatim: To get Swinney’s behavior on public record.

Caputo and Duman stated Port staff should have simply taken Swinney’s money. They also argued that issues regarding Gordon Owen’s late payments be worked out.

Leskin refused, stating he was “beyond working” with Owen, and that he intended to bring criminal charges against him.

Rickard stated the port has a responsibility to enforce a payment schedule.

“Everybody else plays by the rules,” Rickard said. “We’re talking public money here. We’re letting somebody go and not paying.”

Huntington agreed with working with Owen, stating, “If we don’t have a boat in that slip then we don’t get money. At least we’re getting some money.”

Another issue brought up in the disciplinary meeting was contract overrides by Leskin where the commissioners felt he spent more than he was allowed.

Buckwald brought up an instance when Leskin had been approved to spend $5,000, but had spent $7,000 instead.

Leskin agreed that the amount had gone over what was approved, but that it was his right to do so. He argued that the law allowed him full range to spend up to $10,000 without board approval.

Duman disagreed, stating “$5,000 is the threshold that you have to put it up for bidding procedures.”

When Leskin did put contracts up for bid, Duman argued, he was doing it incorrectly. “I’d like to clarify one thing about the public bid process,” Duman said. “You should have had three bids in hand. It doesn’t have to go to a public bidding process, but you should have requested three bids.”

Duman’s interpretation of the law was incorrect. Regarding a $5,000 threshold, ORS 279B.065 states, “A contracting agency may award a procurement of goods or services that does not exceed $10,000 in any manner the contracting agency deems practical or convenient, including by direct selection or award.”

In addition, OR 279B.055 regulates this bidding process and states an organization is required to make a public notice of the bid, published in “at least one newspaper of general circulation” or, by rule or order, electronically.

Leskin reminded Duman that he did present the ORS codes to the commission, even bringing in an expert on Jan. 30 to explain it the regulations. Duman said he vaguely remembered these, but he remained firm in his belief.

Nevertheless, Caputo requested that Buckwald and Duman review all Leskin’s contracts, taking away the port manager’s financial autonomy regarding contract bidding.

Finally, Caputo made two more demands of Leskin, saying, “If the commissioners agree with me, I would like the port manager to write a letter of apology to David Swinney and Michelle Culwell. I would propose that the manager take a 16-hour class on anger management. There are several online classes that are available to you.”

At this point, Leskin refused to cooperate. A transcript of the response reads as follows:

Leskin: “I am not writing a letter to Dave Swinney.”

Rickard: “And I disagree with these demands you have made. We’re not the manager.”

Caputo: “I understand that. Anybody have anything else? Anything you want to say, Steven, before I close the meeting?”

Leskin: “I’m not agreeing to take an anger management class.”

The room went silent at that point.

Caputo: “Any ... more comments?”

Huntington: “What’s going to happen with refusal? I mean, he’s refusing. What are we going to do?”

Caputo: “I don’t know.”

Buckwald: “Well, we just call legal council and find out. Maybe that’s a good idea.”

Caputo: “I will talk to the legal department and go from there.”

Caputo then closed out the meeting.

One month later on April 21, Leskin filed a second ethics complaint, this time to the Bureau of Labor and Industries (BOLI). He accused the entire commission of retaliation. He is more specific with a timeline in the complaint:

  1. On March 15, 2017, Respondent Commissioners Duman and Huntington voted at a commission meeting to engage in conduct that I believed created a conflict of interest.
  2. On March 21, I filed an ethics complaint with the Oregon Governmental Ethics Commission against Commissioners Duman and Huntington. That complaint was made in good faith and was reasonable. It was, therefore, protected from retaliation by both ORS 659A.199 and 659A.203.
  3. On Friday, March 24, 2017, I emailed copies of the complaint I had filed to Respondent.
  4. On Friday, March 24, 2017, Commission Chair Ron Caputo told me that I had “crossed a line” and would be replaced.
  5. On March 29, 2017, Commissioner Caputo informed the local paper that Respondent would hold an open session to publicly discuss charges against me. He followed that announcement with an email informing me that the commissioners “may consider charges against (me) that may lead to disciplinary action.”

Commissioners imposed discipline on me in a special meeting held on March 31, 2017.

  1. Respondent violated ORS 659A.199 and ORS 259A.203 by threatening to discharge me and by imposing discipline in retaliation for the report I made to OGEC.”

The mentioned ORS violations are, essentially, “whistleblower laws,” barring employers from retaliating against employees who, in good faith, report violations of the state law by their employers.

However, the complaint to the ethics department was misleading.

Leskin’s scenario paints a picture of himself seeing an ethical financial violation, reporting it diligently and then being threatened with termination because of it — all while omitting the circumstances surrounding the alleged violation.

In the March 13 disciplinary meeting, the commissioners never brought up the OGEC letter of complaint.

Neither did Leskin.

By July 10, BOLI dismissed the complaint, stating: “This letter is to inform you that the above-captioned complaint… has been dismissed because the Division did not find sufficient evidence to continue our investigation.”

By then, Leskin had been placed on leave.

On Tuesday, May 30, Caputo gave an official statement to Leskin after an executive meeting:

“You are being put on paid administrative leave while we check on a complaint we have from Amber Novelli concerning some sexual advances that she perceived that you made.”

To date, nothing has been publicly released regarding this claim.

In the past year, the only mention of Amber Novelli was in relation to being late on her payments.

During the December 2016 meeting, now Interim Managing Director Dina McClure listed the Novellis, along with three other moorage customers, who were in “various states of collection.”

During the January 2017 meeting, Leskin specifically stated the Novellis are “up to date on payments for the floating fish market,” per the meeting minutes.

The only other information known comes from Port Attorney Brewer, stating they were unable to substantiate the complaint.

The Port Commission’s justification for Leskin’s termination comes from what it says has been a tense relationship that crippled the port committee for the last year.