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The proposals are meant to address shortcomings in the auditor's resources and authority, she says.

Members of the Multnomah County Charter Review Committee have recommended certain measures, and rejected others, to strengthen the county's internal watchdog: the auditor's office.

Every six years, the county convenes a committee to review and make recommendations for revisions to the charter, which functions as a local constitution. Recommendations must be approved by voters via ballot measure to be enacted.

Multnomah County Auditor Jennifer McGuirk proposed several charter changes, which the committee's government accountability subcommittee has been reviewing for months.

The proposals address what McGuirk considers shortcomings in the resources and authority of the county auditor's office. The office currently doesn't meet industry standards of independence nor conduct the appropriate number of audits for the county's size, she says.

"The changes my office is proposing to the Charter are extremely necessary," she wrote in a letter to the subcommittee on May 11.

The auditor is an elected official who works to ensure accountability of the county government. Audits evaluate the efficiency and effectiveness of county programs and operations.

McGuirk was re-elected to a second four-year term last month, after running unopposed in the primary election.

The subcommittee unanimously voted Wednesday, May 26, to advance three charter changes to the auditor's office for consideration by the full committee.

One change would enshrine the county's Good Government Hotline in the auditor's section of the charter. The hotline allows county employees and the public to anonymously report suspected fraud, waste of resources, retaliation and misconduct by county officials or agents. It was originally created as a county program by a previous auditor in 2007.

Another change would allow the auditor to create an ombudsman office. Whereas an auditor evaluates entire county systems or programs, an ombudsman's scope is narrower, investigating specific incidents or actions involving county operations or officials.

A third change would add language to reinforce county officials' obligation to provide the auditor's office with public information, data or documents for its work.

Subcommittee members declined to vote on whether to advance one of McGuirk's key proposals: to change the funding mechanism for the auditor's office.

McGuirk wanted to establish a percentage of the county's general fund expenditures that would go to the auditor's office.

Doing so would remove the possibility that the county chair could negatively influence the auditor's budget in retaliation or for fear of scrutiny, McGuirk argued. The structure of the county government creates a conflict of interest for the county chair, McGuirk says — the chair plays a strong role in setting the auditor's budget and oversees all county operations that could be subject to audits.

PMG FILE PHOTO - Multnomah County Auditor Jennifer McGuirkThe auditor follows the same budget process as county department heads. She submits her annual requested budget directly to the county chair, who then decides what to include when she creates her proposed executive budget for the county. The proposed executive budget then goes through six weeks of public hearings and deliberations before it's finalized by the county board of commissioners.

McGuirk's proposal to change the funding mechanism of her office also would increase its budget, which she says hasn't grown in recent years to ensure adequate oversight of the county's expanding size and responsibilities.

While the county government has increased spending, added new programs and made the Joint Office of Homeless Services a department, the auditor's budget has remained relatively static, providing for nine staff since the 1990s, McGuirk said.

With its current budget, the auditor's office isn't able to meet its mandate implied by the charter, McGuirk told the subcommittee. "I have an extremely skilled, dedicated team. But there is still no way for seven staff auditors to meet this mandate, or frankly, to even come close."

McGuirk proposed to set the auditor's budget at 1%, 0.75% or 0.5% of county general fund expenditures on a five-year rolling average. At 1%, the auditor's budget and staff would more than triple, allowing for more audits and new operations. The auditor's recent budgets have provided for three audits and special reports.

The Association of Local Government Auditors (ALGA) submitted a letter of support to the subcommittee for all of McGuirk's proposals, including the funding mechanism, called a "budget floor."

Portland Auditor Mary Hull Caballero and former Multnomah County Auditor Gary Blackmer voiced general support for changing the funding mechanism to create greater budgetary independence. They didn't give full-throated support to McGuirk's specific proposal, however.

Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury and Commissioner Susheela Jayapal opposed the concept of a budget floor.

Giving an office a budget floor would create a lack of budgetary flexibility that could lead to cuts to essential programs and services during economic downturns, they told the subcommittee during an April meeting. They encouraged the subcommittee to identify how the county's governance structure could be improved rather than trying to solve an issue of auditor independence using a budget floor.

"I agree with the objective of the proposal, ensuring independence of the audit function," Jayapal said. The proposal, however, "feels like a blunt instrument that could create lots of anomalies and unintended consequences."

Kafoury also questioned whether any previous budget requests by the auditor have been denied by the county board. She added that she doesn't believe the auditor's budget has limited the office's ability to do impartial and effective work.

In response, McGuirk later offered the subcommittee multiple examples of budget requests that were not included in her previous approved budgets. In 2020, her request for $175,000 to add an auditor who specialized in diversity, equity and inclusion was denied.

McGuirk said she unsuccessfully lobbied two commissioners for the position during budget deliberations. In her experience, she said, once the chair's proposed executive budget is published, it's difficult to have items added.

Kafoury included funding for four additional staff auditors in her fiscal year 2023 proposed executive budget, for which McGuirk says she's grateful while adding that it's still insufficient for the county's needs.

In rejecting the budget floor proposal, subcommittee members said it was too much of a departure from the budget process of all other county functions, an argument the commissioners also voiced. At their meeting Wednesday, June 1, they recommended future charter review committees look into the proposal again, however.

McGuirk argued budget floors for local government operations are not extraordinary, noting that ALGA promotes them as a viable option for auditor independence. Portland has one for its police oversight board as well as New Orleans for its inspector general, she added.

The full charter review committee is expected to vote on all recommendations from subcommittees during its meetings on June 15 and June 28.

For more information on the charter review committee or to attend a meeting, visit multco.us/crc.


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