Multnomah County voters to decide changes to auditor's office
Voters will see two ballot initiatives this November aimed at strengthening the Multnomah County Auditor's Office by amending the county charter.
A 15-person committee tasked with reviewing the charter — functionally a local constitution — concluded its work in July, recommending seven charter amendments, which must be approved by voters to be implemented.
Two of those amendments relate to the county auditor, an elected official who regularly analyzes county programs and operations to promote efficiency, effectiveness and accountability.
Also, the committee rejected a third previously recommended amendment after county commissioners pushed back.
Multnomah County Auditor Jennifer McGuirk originally proposed the amendments.
McGuirk has pointed out that the county's role, size and budget recently have expanded substantially, making her office's government watchdog obligations increasingly important.
The auditor's most recent report, which was released on July 27, showed that the county struggled to keep up with contact tracing through different waves of COVID-19, making it difficult for infected people to receive assistance to isolate or quarantine.
One amendment headed to voters would add language to the charter to guarantee the auditor's timely access to records, information and other materials related to audits.
McGuirk said the change would help prevent audits from being unnecessarily delayed.
She told the committee her office has faced challenges in obtaining information from county departments in recent years.
Auditors' physical access to a county animal shelter was restricted after it released an initial audit of the Animal Services Division in 2016, McGuirk said.
Additionally, she said the Joint Office of Homeless Services unnecessarily delayed providing data it already reports to the federal government by asking the county attorney's office for approval first.
Another amendment would establish an ombudsman's office under the authority of the auditor.
The ombudsman's office would conduct investigations into actions by county departments and offices, responding to complaints from the public and making reports based on its findings.
Its goal would be to safeguard people's rights and promote "high standards of fairness, competency, efficiency and justice in the provision of county services," according to the committee's report.
Whereas the county auditor evaluates entire county systems or programs, the scope of the ombudsman's office would be narrower — to investigate specific incidents or actions involving county operations.
Portland already has an ombudsman's office under its auditor.
The county chair would be required to respond to the ombudsman's reports, including what actions have been or will be taken to address the ombudsman's findings.
The ombudsman's office would be restricted from investigating elected officials or their staff, issues related to collective bargaining grievances or litigation and discrimination complaints from employees or applicants for employment. The restrictions were supported by McGuirk.
Prior to the committee's final meeting July 20, Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury expressed support, "given proper scoping," for both the ombudsman's office and another amendment the committee previously recommended — to enshrine the county's Good Government Hotline in the charter.
The hotline, which is housed in the auditor's office, allows county employees and the public to anonymously report suspected fraud, wasted resources, retaliation and misconduct by county officials or its agents. It originally was created as a county program by a previous auditor in 2007.
But in a letter to the committee the day before its final meeting, Kafoury changed course.
She argued that the charter was too rigid — it can be changed only after a long review process and voter approval — to house the programs.
"Inserting the ombuds office and Good Government Hotline into the charter risks tying the county's hands when it needs to make necessary and timely adjustments to ensure the effectiveness and responsiveness of those programs," Kafoury wrote.
She added that neither the auditor nor the board would be able to address redundancies within the programs effectively.
Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson expressed the same concerns in a letter to the committee.
The commissioners said they support implementing the programs by adopting ordinances that place them in county code.
The committee voted against placing the hotline in the charter on July 20.
McGuirk said that while she was grateful for the two amendments related to her office the committee advanced, she was disappointed the hotline wasn't included.
"If the county's hotline is in code, it is not sufficiently protected from elimination," McGuirk said via email. "A future board of county commissioners could decide they want the hotline to report to county management, and not to an independently elected auditor who reports directly to the public."
She added that she hopes the county adheres to state law and the hotline's current practices in developing an ordinance to codify the hotline so she can support it.
Also, county commissioners previously expressed concern about increasing the independence of the auditor's office by giving it a budget floor in the charter, a provision that died in a charter review subcommittee.
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