Council reaction mixed to City Auditor's reform proposals
January 25 hearing is set for resolution that must be approved by Feb. 10 to qulaify for May 16 special election ballot.
City Auditor Mary Hull Caballero received a mixed reception from the City Council on reforms she is proposing for her office during a Jan. 10 work session.
Hull Caballero says the reforms are necessary to ensure the independence of her office. She wants the council to ask Portland voters to approve a number of City Charter amendments at the May 16 special election. The council has scheduled a hearing on them for Jan. 25 and must place them on the ballot by Feb. 10 for the vote to occur by then.
But the council split over multiple aspects of the proposed reforms at the work session. Commissioners Chloe Eudaly and Nick Fish were largely supportive, but still had some questions. Mayor Ted Wheeler saw a number of major issues that need to be addressed. Commissioner Amanda Fritz was openly hostile. And Commissioner Dan Saltzman, who may be the swing vote, was absent.
Hull Caballero opened the work session by noting that some bureaus subject to audits have budget, legal and personnel control over the office. She also noted that some of the office's major functions — including the Ombudsman and Independent Police Review responsibilities — are not even in the charter.
Supporting Hull Caballero were former Dallas City Auditor Craig Kinton, former Portland Auditor Gary Blackmer and National Lawyers Guild volunteer Christen Chambers. All said the public needs to perceive auditors as independent from those they audit to be effective.
Fish said he supports making the auditor's office more independent, but worried the deadline for the vote may be unrealistic if serious issues are raised at the Jan. 25 hearing. Eudaly said she also supported making the office more independent, but had concerns about the city's share of the election cost if only a few offices and measures are on the ballot. Hull Caballero assured her the cost should be well under $150,000.
Fritz raised the most questions by far during the work session, and her exchanges with Hull Caballero grew increasingly contentious as it progressed. Among other things, Fritz asked how the office could fairly investigate internal personnel complaints if it was no longer under the authority of city Bureau of Human Resources, as Hull Caballero is proposing.
"It's like the fox guarding the hen house," Fritz said. Hull Caballero replied that private investigators could be hired to conduct the investigations and office employees could appeal the decisions to an independent referee.
Fritz also said if the council were to refer the reforms to the ballot, it should propose eliminating the current requirment that the auditor be a licensed auditor. Fritz said that would encourage more people to run for the office, noting the last few elections have been uncontested.
Wheeler also expressed concerns over some personnel issues, noting the city would still be liable for any judgements resulting from subsequent lawsuits over such decisions.
Hull Caballero said her office will meet with the council members and their staff after the session to finalize a resolution to be submitted on Tuesday. Proposed reforms 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 submit its proposed budget directly to the council without prior review by any other agency. 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.
You can read the reform proposals at tinyurl.com/jybjgps.
To reads a previous Portland Tribune story on the issue, visit tinyurl.com/j5vftf5.