Ex-employee: Eugene parks worker misused power with homeless
EUGENE, Ore. (AP) — Eugene’s employee code of conduct instructs city workers to behave in “a manner that reflects positively on the city” and to “treat members of the public and coworkers with dignity and respect.”
However, Parks and Open Space employees and some residents allege one Eugene park ambassador is misusing his power — regularly taunting, degrading and threatening to evict people who are allowed to camp in the city’s parks.
Former parks employee Candy Hussey said she was so disgusted with the way her team lead Joe Waksmundski treats homeless people, she quit working for the city after bringing the issue to their boss several times.
She told The Register-Guard she feels he made “not only a really unsafe work environment for us (the city workers), but just a general feeling of being unsafe in the park for the people that live there.”
The Register-Guard contacted the city requesting to speak with Waksmundski, but the city said he was “not available for an interview.” Other attempts to contact him directly were unsuccessful.
Several people experiencing homelessness in the city also shared with The Register-Guard stories of negative interactions with him. These included a few verbal confrontations that allegedly were escalated to the point that a camper, who had nowhere else to live, was forced to leave the parks.
City spokesperson Laura Hammond stated in an email to The Register-Guard that all employees are expected to follow the code of conduct, but would not comment specifically about Waksumdski, citing it as a specific personnel matter.
“We’re making sure we have all the information relevant to this concern. We take allegations of any misconduct seriously,” Hammond said in the email.
Waksumdski has worked for the city since 2017.
The lead park ambassador is responsible for promoting the safety and security of park patrons, employees, facilities and grounds, according to the job description.
They are expected to do their best to get those living in parks to comply with park codes and rules.
The lead park ambassador is required to “learn general signs of mental illness and substance abuse and best practices for working with these populations” and “diffuse and encourage compliance.”
This position provides direction to lower classifications and temporary employees.
It’s not an easy job and it’s changed over the course of the pandemic, said Brian Richardson, spokesperson for the city’s Public Works department.
In late December 2020, the city changed its policy to temporarily allow urban camping in parks and created a detailed list of criteria campers must follow to avoid eviction. With this change, park ambassadors went from covering the city’s entire park system to being more concentrated in the two main parks where people are camping.
“There are complications with getting people to comply (with camping criteria),” Richardson said, adding that the goal is always to get compliance without police involvement. “It’s a challenge. This has been a balancing act through and through — trying to balance the needs of the housed with the unhoused, with the people who are working in and around these situations as well.”
Over email, Hammond listed resources parks employees are given to help tackle the job including meetings with local service providers to better understand what help is available; ride-alongs with Eugene police and CAHOOTS, an unarmed crisis response team; and trainings on issues such as trauma and belonging.
“Treating all members of our community with respect and providing outstanding service even in challenging situations are key parts of the city’s mission and expected of all employees,” Hammond said.
Hussey said she loved working for the city’s parks department. She was homeless throughout most of her childhood, so she said she was a good fit for the department’s urban camping response team.
Her job was to build relationships with people sleeping in the parks and help them follow the many rules that allow them to stay, among other job duties. If a person’s camp falls out of compliance, they get a write-up from the team and 72 hours to fix it or face removal.
Hussey was hired in April and began working on a small team stationed at Washington Jefferson Park.
If people needed a new tent, she’d help them find one. If they needed help, she’d try to provide it. Sometimes she and her coworkers would have to cite people for breaking the temporary urban camping rules.
“The city has nowhere for these people to go. So, I don’t think they should be kicking them out of the park especially while things were all shut down for COVID,” Hussey said. “My partner and I, we spent a lot of time making sure that we approached people and talked to them before they were just given a write-up.”
She said she was “really uncomfortable” with the way Waksmundski, the team’s leader, interacted with people camping in parks.
On July 28, 2021, Hussey wrote an email summarizing her complaints against her team leader to their boss, mentioning him by name.
“I have been driven to the point where I can no longer sit back and watch the atrocious behavior by a particular city worker anymore,” the email said. “I hope that I can stay. I’m literally in tears because I am so upset.”
Hussey resigned Aug. 5, about four months after being hired. She also submitted a report on Waksmundski’s behavior to the city’s Human Rights Commission, claiming she “witnessed this man several times cuss at, insult, yell at and taunt residents of this park. On top of the horrible behavior, this man also abuses his power. He has skipped paperwork and kicked people out of the park for no reason.”
Another parks employee who has worked with Waksmundski corroborated Hussey’s description of his behavior and shared additional incidents they witnessed between Waksmundski and campers that they found upsetting and running contrary to the purpose of the job.
Pauline Krieger, a 52-year-old woman living in Washington Jefferson, told The Register-Guard she’s seen Waksmundski circle the park with police and seemingly “harass” campers at random.
“Everybody (living here) is in a situation that’s depressing,” Krieger said. “And to have somebody cussing at you ... One cuss word can really put somebody over the edge when they’re having an emotional day.”
Nathan Bemiller, another person staying in Washington Jefferson, has had to move his camp multiple times to stay in compliance. At one point, he said,he was trying to move his possessions to a compliant area of the park when Waksmundski started writing him up for being at the spot he was in the process of moving out of.
Bemiller said he implored Waksmundski not to issue the 72-hour warning and asked him where he expected him to go.
According to Bemiller, Waksmundski answered, “a different city, a different state, pretty much a different county.”
When she was living under the Ferry Street Bridge, Dayna Bolin had an interaction with Waksmundski that left her feeling angry and demoralized. She said he accused her and those she lived with at the time of being “nothing but needle users” and told them he was “going to go home to my nice warm bed.”
Chance McCartney is appealing being banned from all city parks and open spaces because her camp exceeded a 12-by-12-foot size limit when she attached a shade structure to it. McCartney said she needed the shade structure to survive the summer’s record-breaking heatwaves.
An appeal filed by her attorney claims Waksmundski targeted McCartney and said he was going to “personally” make sure that she was forced out of the Washington Jefferson Park.
Hussey said the event that pushed her to speak up was a verbal argument between Waksmundski and a camper that allegedly led to the camper being evicted from the park.
“I approached a camp, typical morning, and was leaving a garbage bag outside and I said, ‘Hey man, you got a little garbage outside your tent. If you could pick it up by the end of the day, that’d be great. Here’s a garbage bag,’ ” Hussey said. “The young man yelled, ‘I’m not having a very good day’ or something like that and I was just like, ‘OK, well, I hope you have a better day’ and I walked away. No problem. He’s having a bad day, it’s not personal.
“And Joe started screaming back at him, screaming things like ‘You can’t treat a park officer like that.’ ”
According to Hussey, her team lead called the young man names, and the camper got mad. The two allegedly yelled back and forth until the camper was evicted from the park.
She said in another instance, she heard Waksmundski talk with a police officer about planting bike parts by a camper’s tent to have a reason to kick them out of the park.
“I’ve worked a lot of different jobs,” Hussey said. “This is the first time I’ve ever been so uncomfortable ... that I’ve said something about it.”
Hussey said she misses her job, but maintains she needed to quit and bring attention to Waksmundski’s behavior.
Having experienced homelessness, she knows how vulnerable it can leave people, she said, and believes someone like her previous team lead should not be in charge of those living without shelter.
“(People) don’t understand what it’s like to be homeless,” Hussey said. “It strips away everything from you — your pride, your dignity.”
Hammond, with the city, said in an email the city directs and trains employees to maintain a respectful work environment, free from harassment or degrading remarks or conduct.
“The city’s personnel process seeks to identify, mitigate and correct any behavior which violates organizational policies, procedures, Collective Bargaining Agreements and, of course, legal workplace protections,” Hammond said. “The city takes this responsibility seriously by proportionately and appropriately taking actions in instances where violations have occurred.”
She wouldn’t say if Waksmundski was being investigated.
“We do not comment on specific personnel matters,” she said.
Hussey isn’t the only one to bring up concerns about Waksmundski’s behavior, according to Hussey, another previous parks employee, campers and activists.
The city also refused to comment on those claims.