Field Notes

Cogen affair ripples through county health department

It hasn’t always been like this for Lillian Shirley, currently a casualty of the Cogen affair.

It would be so easy to spend paragraph after paragraph lifting her accomplishments from her time in Boston where she served as the first executive director of the Boston Public Health Commission, to her volunteer work for Southeast Asian refugees and her time here running the Multnomah County Department of Health.

She came in and helped establish a national reputation for the department and herself, taking the old line about an ounce of prevention being worth a pound of cure to new levels.

Like a detective working to bring crime down by shifting the focus to social and economic factors that lead to crime – the broken windows theory – Shirley has tried to do the same when it comes to making Multnomah County a healthier place.

Instead of aiming for minimums – clean restaurants, making sure people get immunizations – Shirley has taken the approach that you need to look at the impact factors such as economic disparity has on health.

“We are all in this together and the health of our own families and communities cannot be separated from the health of the community at large,” she said when being honored by Research America as a Public Health Hero in 2008.

And here in Multnomah County she has had a great ally in Jeff Cogen, the county chairman, on both a professional level and a personal one.

Several sources at Multnomah County relayed these stories to KATU on the condition of anonymity.

Besides the support he has provided for the work the department has done, people inside county government say Cogen was there for her earlier this year when Shirley’s marriage fell apart, an unfortunate series of events that included her getting arrested for domestic violence, though the charge was dropped.

When Shirley came back to work soon after the incident, while some had thought she should take more time for herself, Cogen was there for her.

Unfortunately, that was only part of the story.

What most people did not see – but several staffers have called KATU to talk about – is the behind the scenes problems at the Health Department that they fear are going to become worse.

It came to a head last week when Cogen admitted to having an affair with Sonia Manhas, one of Shirley’s top deputies.

As part of that firestorm, the county released hundreds of emails between the two and while they don’t shed a lot of light on the day-to-day workings of their affair, they paint a picture of Cogen allowing Manhas to frequently circumvent Shirley and undermine her authority.

The day before the emails were released, Shirley had released a statement defending Manhas and her work.

“In Sonia's 12 years with the Health Department, she has effectively reached into our most vulnerable communities and broken ground with approaches that improved people's health and well-being,” she told the Oregonian.

Shirley has so far declined interview requests, so we haven’t been able to ask her to follow up on that statement as more information has come to light.

When Shirley was arrested, she released a statement talking about the accolades her department has received and how they had “worked hard to build a national reputation for innovation and success.

“I am confident that the department’s long-term reputation will continue and that we will maintain its high standard.”

Staffers are concerned that with Cogen so blatantly allowing her authority to be undermined, with Manhas’s credibility severely damaged – not for having an affair so much as for putting her schemes in print – that the department’s “high standard” has taken a severe beating.