Auditor seeks more autonomy with reform measure
City Auditor Mary Hull Caballero will ask City Council to refer City Charter changes to May 2017 ballot
Tensions have been growing for years between the City Council and the City Auditor's Office.
Most recently, the council balked at changes proposed to the Independent Police Review division within the Auditor's Office, proposed by City Auditor Mary Hull Caballero. Mayor Charlie Hales clashed with Hull Caballero over his plan to speed up foreclosures on long-empty "zombie houses" with delinquent fines collected by the Auditor's Office. And Hull Caballero has pushed back on a new public campaign-financing program that Commissioner Amanda Fritz has proposed creating in the office, saying she does not have enough employees to administer it.
Now Hull Caballero is saying that, although her office is an elected position created by the City Charter, she does not believe it is independent enough from the council or the city agencies it is charged with overseeing. Among other things, her audits frequently criticize the management of bureaus overseen by the mayor and council members. So she wants Portland voters to approve a number of charter reforms at a May 16, 2017, special election to increase its authority.
"There are a lot of ways we can get crossways with the other elected officials and the executive branch of the city," Hull Caballero told the Portland Tribune earlier this week.
One example is when Hull Caballero learned that Mayor Charlie Hales and Commissioner Steve Novick had a private meeting with political consultant and Uber lobbyist Mark Wiener while the council was considering allowing the ride-sharing company to operate in Portland. The meeting was not disclosed by Hales, Novick or Uber, in apparent violation of lobbyist regulation requirements enforced by the Auditor's Office. When the office began its investigation, Hull Caballero quickly realized the City Attorney's Office was advising Hales, Novick and her office about the matter at the same time. She decided to hire outside counsel, but had to get permission from the city attorney.
"It was a clear conflict, but I have to get approval to set it right," said Hull Caballero, who eventually sent warning letters to Hales and Novick and fined Uber $2,000.
Among other things, Hull Caballero wants all the oversight responsibilities of the office to be authorized by the charter. She also wants the office to be able to administer its own budget, have an in-house lawyer, and be free from the policies, rules and authority of the Office of Management and Finance.
Former City Auditor Gary Blackmer supports the reforms.
"The auditor's job is not to make council members happy, and that tension interferes with the task of holding the city accountable. Each of the 10 years I was auditor, the council agreed to divide up the budget pie without considering my office. Legal advice is handed out by the fourth floor of City Hall and the attorneys were insensitive to the auditor's unique role and responsibilities. Those practices continue, so I totally support Mary's proposals," said Blackmer, who also served as Multnomah County auditor and head of the Audits Division of the Oregon Secretary of State's office.
Hull Caballero is scheduled to present her proposed reforms to the City Council at a Jan. 10 work session. She wants the council to hear them on Jan. 25 to meet a Feb. 2 deadline for referring measures to the May 16 ballot.
"What I'm asking the council to do is, let the voters decide what kind of auditor's office they want," said Hull Caballero, who previous served as Metro auditor.
But it is the council, not Hull Caballero, that will decide whether to hold a hearing on her proposals and which of them to refer to the voters, if any.
Some might argue the fact that Hull Caballero needs council approval to ask voters to reform her office proves her point — although the office is charged with auditing everything from the city's financial condition to individual agencies, it is not truly independent.
The 2017 council that takes up the matter will have two new members, Mayor-elect Ted Wheeler and Commissioner-elect Chloe Eudaly, who have yet to be fully briefed on the charter proposals. Hull Caballero has already briefed the carry-over members. Commissioner Nick Fish is generally supportive of the reforms. Commissioners Amanda Fritz and Dan Saltzman will not comment until they have seen more specifics.
Portland has had an elected auditor since 1868. Additional responsibilities have been added over the years and now include providing audit services, code hearings, maintaining the city's archives, foreclosing on delinquent properties, accepting city election filings, reviewing allegations of police misconduct, handling citizen complaints through an ombudsman, and registering lobbyists and campaign consultants who contact council members.
Not all of the duties and responsibilities are spelled out in the charter. The last substantive charter changes passed 30 years ago, when former Auditor Jewel Lansing wanted to begin conducting performance audits on city bureaus. Hull Caballero says the structure of the office no longer meets best practices developed by peer organizations in other cities.
The City Charter reforms that City Auditor Mary Hull Caballero is proposing include:
• Making all oversight functions of the City Auditor's Office permanent, by adding civilian oversight of law enforcement and ombudsman responsibilities to the charter.
• Increasing the autonomy of the office to make administrative and management decisions by exempting it from Office of Management and Finance policies, rules and authority. That city office currently has authority over how the auditor's office is administered, including approval authority over procurement and personnel decisions.
• Allowing the office to seek independent legal advice by giving the auditor the ability to appoint in-house counsel and directly hire outside counsel. At the present time, the auditor's office may obtain legal advice only from the City Attorney's Office, which also represents the council and the bureaus and is subject to the Auditor Office's oversight. The auditor may now obtain outside legal services only with the prior approval of the city attorney.
• Allowing the office to adopt an independent budget through a process yet to be determined. Under the current process, the City Budget Office evaluates the auditor's proposed budget and recommends what level of funding it should receive to the council, which makes the final decision.