Editors Note: After the completion of this article, but before its scheduled release, Bob received documents dated May 2, 2014, confirming pre-termination communications and planning between VP of Operations and Human Resources Ryan Fleming and VP of Corporate Policy and External Affairs Chris Davie, in which they discussed the impending removal of John Plotkin. These communications include editing suggestions for a message to John Gilkey, informing him of the change and that he would be appointed Interim CEO. Bob will be publishing these documents and related commentary Wednesday. In the meantime, these documents confirm Bob’s assertion below that the termination on May 9th was decided long before the actual meeting. 

Imagine you are an employee facing a disciplinary panel, and those sitting before you in judgment were an ACLU Board member, a Human Resources professional, an attorney specializing in employment law, and a union representative. You might be feeling pretty good about your chances at due process, right? Not if your name is John Plotkin.

I originally considered using the word “terminated” in the headline of this article. However, to me the word “terminated” conveys a process of propriety and formality. It is indicative that procedures were followed, and a justifiable action resulting in the end of one's employment has occurred.

John Plotkin, on the other hand, was simply canned.

The Board maintains that their CEO is an at will employee who serves at their pleasure, and that they were completely within their rights to terminate -excuse me- can him. They are technically correct on that assertion. I would take a moment to point out, however, that there is sometimes a vast gulf between having a right to do something, and being right in doing it.

And if you were surprised to learn of the pathetically shallow reasons for his termination, you'll be flabbergasted when you learn more about the four people who pulled the trigger.

Meet Board Chair Cathy Travis. Ms. Travis has been on the SAIF Board since 2005. A retired attorney, she is today a commercial arbitrator with the American Arbitration Association, where she has served for over 21 years. For those unaware, an arbitrator is an independent person officially appointed to settle a dispute. According to the Oregon Judicial Department, arbitrators are required to take an oath and follow the same ethical rules as a judge. Ms. Travis is a past president and current member of the board of directors of the ACLU of Oregon and the ACLU Foundation of Oregon. The ACLU, which of course stands for the American Civil Liberties Union, fights to protect people's First Amendment rights, as well as, ironically, the right to due process.

Meet Board Vice Chair Robb Van Cleave. Mr. Van Cleave is the Chief Operating Officer for Columbia Gorge Community College. He has been a Human Resources professional for over 20 years and is a former member of the international Board of Directors of the Society for Human Resource Management. You all know what human resources professionals, do, right? They are the people trained to deal with the hiring, administration, and training of personnel. They also are the ones who make sure that terminations are properly documented and conducted within the scope and spirit of the law.

He has served on the SAIF Board since 2005.

Meet Board Member Krishna Balasubramani. Serving on the SAIF Board since 2013, Mr. Balasubramani is an attorney and partner in the firm Sather, Byerly and Holloway, LLP, in Portland. He represents employers in the Pacific Northwest in employment-related matters, including wrongful termination lawsuits, administrative complaints to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and workers' compensation cases.

Let me repeat part of that in case you missed it. He specializes in wrongful termination suits. That is not a reference to his fashion sense; his expertise is not in what suit should be worn to a wrongful termination. It is in the legal world of employment law, which is good knowledge for him to have. 

I suspect he and the Board may be putting it to good use very soon.

Meet Board Member Kevin Jensen. Mr. Jensen is the newest member of the SAIF Board, joining it this past February. He is the business manager for Ironworkers Local 29 in Portland. An Oregon native, Mr. Jensen joined the Ironworkers apprenticeship program after graduating from high school. Since then, he has worked as an ironworker and foreman (responsible for employee safety, among other things) on several large construction projects around the Northwest, including the Rose Garden Arena, Bonneville Dam, and Salem Hospital. Mr. Jensen served as the business agent for Ironworkers' Local 29 before becoming its business manager in 2004. As business manager, he handles all the organization's finances, negotiates labor agreements, and seeks out business opportunities for its members in Oregon and southwest Washington.

Finally Plotkin's termination makes a bit of sense. Apparently fired (canned) for bringing “salty” language to the Executive Floor of SAIF, it is possible he upset the Ironworkers Union. Generally Ironworkers are known for their genteel and demur nature, as well as their abhorrence for “salty” language.

Also, it goes without saying that unions in general are never interested in protecting the rights of employees.

The minutes of the May 9th meeting where Plotkin was officially terminated (although clearly the decision had already been made) are quite disturbing for the lack of due process they reveal. Plotkin was given 10 minutes to present a defense to charges he had yet to be properly informed of. Chair Travis sounds less than forgiving when he runs over that time. I understand her impatience. They had a public vote containing a foregone conclusion to get to.

I don’t think the Spanish Inquisition ran this efficiently.

One of the most disturbing points of the meeting as reflected in those minutes comes at a point of dialogue between the Board and Plotkin regarding his now well known comment, “Speak English, not actuary”. The allegation is that Plotkin said this to a person of color during a presentation that was being made to company executives.

Here is the specific exchange:

Mr. Plotkin: For example, I told somebody to “speak English, not actuary,” and that was offensive to somebody evidently. Context is important. I understand, for whatever reason.

Mr. Jensen: But shouldn't you be considering that context when you say that?

Mr. Plotkin: Yes, and I did.

Mr. Van Cleave: What was the race of the person, or ethnicity of the person, who was making the presentation? (Audience made comments, and someone said “You just told us who it was” twice.)

Mr. Plotkin: As I recall, that person was a person of color. But, I don't know, first of all the benefit, that this person was offended.

Mr. Van Cleave: And I asked, were they?

Mr. Plotkin: I said, “speak English, not actuary”, and there's a reason in a context, which is actuarial science is very complicated. I have been trying to drive people away from insurance-speak. Stop using acronyms, stop referring to Loss Control, start talking about safety services. So in that context, saying “speak English, not actuary,” nobody, I think, could reasonably have been upset, but if they were, I've got an open door policy. Come talk to me. I wouldn't mean to offend.

Mr. Balasubramani: I think almost every executive, every manager, has an open door policy and, some execs have people who routinely walk into the door to air grievances, right? And other execs have the same open door policy, and people don't come in. It's a difficult thing, it's a really, really hard thing for somebody to come in and talk to an exec, and the standards that we're held to, as I understand, in terms of a state agency, the degree of offense, it doesn't have to be to the person the comment was made to, it can be somebody who heard it [emphasis added]. One of the things you and I talked about yesterday, is the standard the same for the CEO, or is it higher or lower? It's certainly not lower, but is it higher?

And there it is. The person of color wasn't offended, but someone that heard the comment was offended, and we hold our CEO to a higher standard.

First, I remain completely flummoxed as to what any of this has to do with the person being “of color”. It is ludicrous. The statement had nothing to do with race, nor could it be remotely associated with any racial remark – in or out of context. What is truly offensive is the notion that one cannot give constructive input to a person of color without offending someone.  That, my friends, is political correctness run amuck, where “morally outraged” white liberals believe that “persons of color” are perennial victims, incapable of accomplishing anything without the assistance of “morally outraged” white liberals.

It is appalling, it is racist, and it is wrong.

And if we are to understand the minutes correctly, the CEO, being held at a “higher standard”, could offend anyone with any statement, either directly or overheard, and be at risk of losing their job as a result. If that is correct; if that is what the Board intended, then SAIF has become officially unmanageable.  Who in their right mind wants to apply for that position? If I were Interim CEO John Gilkey, I would just hide under my desk and suck my thumb, lest something I say offend someone within earshot. Unless, of course, someone is offended by under the desk thumb sucking, at which case I'd be screwed.

Rest assured, my friends, anarchy will ultimately arrive on a horse named Fairness.

Of course, this really may have nothing to do with “salty” language or sensitive people offended on behalf of a person of color. The very thinness of the known accusations against Plotkin speaks to something as yet unrevealed. There is the possibility that the Board was led to their conclusion by a more sinister plot; only time and detailed investigations will reveal what is really going on here.

But the damage for now, to Plotkin and SAIF, is done.

ACLU founder Roger Baldwin once famously said, “So long as we have enough people in this country willing to fight for their rights, we’ll be called a democracy.” Today we are still a democracy, and John Plotkin continues the fight for his rights and restoration of his name. I would have thought that an ACLU Board member, an HR Professional, An Employment Law Attorney and a Union representative would've collectively understood that simple concept.


For a list of Bob’s other SAIF/Plotkin articles (as well as a couple old AASCIF articles that get picked up in the search), Click here.


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