Portland City Auditor proposes Charter amendments to assure greater accountability and transparency

Portland City Auditor Mary Hull Caballero believes there is a problem with the current structure of City government.   The Auditor’s office, which is charged with reviewing the actions of other Executive Branch bureaus, is not sufficiently independent of those same bureaus, she says.   This too-cozy relationship subjects the Auditor to potential political pressure and funding restrictions,  in conflict with Generally Accepted Government Auditing Standards.  The result, she says, is a lack of ethical transparency and accountability in City affairs — not incidentally, a key campaign issue for the two newest members of the Council, Mayor Ted Wheeler and Commissioner Chloe Eudaly.

At a January 10th workshop, Hull Caballero presented concrete proposals to re-organize the position of the Auditor and make other reforms, which would require an amendment to the City Charter.  That amendment would have to be approved by the voters in a May 16th election.  The City Council will take up the question at a hearing on January 25th at 2pm at City Council, 1221 SW 4th Avenue.  Citizens are invited to testify in person, or by email to Commissioners, the City Clerk, and the Auditor.

The hearing should be telling.  Mayor Ted Wheeler criticized the City heavily for a lack of transparency and accountability in government as a candidate, and this would seem an opportune time to make good on his campaign pledges for reform.  Chloe Eudaly, also just elected as Commissioner, has indicated she strongly supported the proposals.  Commissioners Fish and Saltzman are less clear in their positions (Saltzman was absent from the January 10th workshop) while Commissioner Fritz was openly opposed.  (It should be noted that Commissioner Fritz until recently headed the Office of Neighborhood Involvement, the subject of a “scathing” report by the Auditor. She was removed from that position against her wishes by Mayor Wheeler.)

Three guest speakers strongly supported the Auditor’s proposals at the workshop: Gary Blackmer, past Portland City auditor for many years, and later Director of Secretary of State’s Audits Division for many years. Craig Kenton, Dallas City Auditor, who recently led a similar review in Dallas; and Kristen Chambers, attorney, National Lawyers Guild member, stakeholder on other accountability stakeholder committees.

The 2011 Generally Accepted Government Auditing Standards (also referred to as the “Yellow Book”) specifically requires Auditors to address threats to their independence. This is what the Auditor hopes to accomplish with these charter changes.

The Auditor’s three proposals are:

  1. An ability to hire independent legal counsel.
    Current structure requires legal support to come from the City Attorney, who is hired and reports directly to City Council. Being required to use them as legal counsel for internal investigations is an obvious conflict of interest. The Auditor is both watchdog and “the watched.”
  2. The right to present the Auditor’s budget directly to City Council.
    The current structure requires the Auditor’s budget to be processed first by the Budget Office, which is hired and reports directly to City Council. The Charter change would ensure the Auditor’s Office is autonomous, appropriately funded and insulated from political interference. The City of Dallas Auditor reported that that City recently went through a similar revision, and he recommended the budget solution now used by the City: a standing percentage of the annual city budget is given to the City Auditor’s office.
  3. The right to make personnel, management, and procurement decisions independently for the Auditor’s Office.
    The proposal would ensure the Auditor’s Office is autonomous from the Office of Management and Finance and other bureaus. The Auditor will periodically procure or conduct internal quality control reviews and report the results to the public.

Link to the Auditor’s announcement is here.

Recent news article on the workshop:

http://portlandtribune.com/pt/9-news/340293-220453-council-reaction-mixed-to-city-auditors-reform-proposals