Portland City Council rejected a proposal Wednesday to create a government watchdog position within City Hall, instead choosing to indefinitely table the idea.
The proposal was introduced by newly elected City Auditor Simone Rede, who has spent her first few weeks in office fine-tuning the community-drafted plan. The council vote would have placed a measure on the May 16 ballot asking voters to approve a city transparency advocate position.
After two hours of discussion, commissioners instead unanimously approved an alternative resolution directing the auditor’s office to do more research and community outreach on the proposal.
Rede expressed feeling blindsided by the last-minute change.
“I don’t think this honors the spirit of transparency you say you are passionate about,” Rede told council Wednesday. “I’m not willing to commit to an alternative use of my office as a resource without my knowledge.”
Commissioners said they wouldn’t advance the transparency advocate position to the ballot because they believed the proposal wasn’t well communicated with their offices and didn’t reflect enough public input.
“The proposal before us is rushed,” said City Commissioner Dan Ryan, who introduced the alternative resolution. “The unclear goals of the auditor’s office proposal as it related to public records has many of us perplexed.”
The proposed position is meant to add oversight to the city’s compliance with transparency rules, such as public records laws and open meetings policies. That could include fielding the public’s complaints regarding transparency, investigating alleged public meeting law violations, or proposing policies to improve Portland’s public records process.
“Over the past years, Portland has unfortunately developed a reputation for secrecy,” said Jude al-Ghazal Stone, representing the ACLU of Oregon during council testimony Wednesday. “There are several issues that emphasize our city’s need for a transparency advocate within the auditor’s office: lack of community trust, lack of transparency, inefficacy, and inequity.”
Proponents of the position said the office would help prevent issues with public records laws that made headlines in recent months, like the mayor’s office preventing thousands of text messages from being accessed by the public and city staff coaching volunteers on how to conceal their conversations about gunshot detection technology to avoid public records laws.
The proposal initially came from the city’s charter review commission, a group tasked with suggesting improvements to the city’s founding document every 10 years. The commission already sent a round of recommendations to Portland voters in November, resulting in a plan to change the city’s form of government and voting system.
The group proposed a second — and final — round of recommendations in December. That included the idea of adding a transparency advocate to City Hall, a suggestion pitched by government watchdog advocates Open Oregon, the ACLU of Oregon, the League of Women Voters, and the Oregon chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Along with several other commission proposals, this idea needs approval from Portland City Council before landing on the May 16 ballot.
Rede, the auditor who campaigned on a promise of increased transparency in City Hall, was responsible for vetting the proposal before presenting it to City Council.
“I have taken leadership of the commission’s recommended proposal because it clearly aligns with our city’s values,” Rede said Wednesday. “I have made this proposal my business because it affects my office duties.”
As proposed, the position would exist within the auditor’s office. Rede estimated that the position would cost up to $170,000 annually, and said her office’s budget is prepared to cover the cost for at least two years before it would have to be covered by the city’s general fund.
It’s not a novel idea. Cities like Atlanta and Toronto, and states including Arizona and Oregon have had a similar public advocate role for years.
“When the transparency advocate proposal was first brought to us, I was very interested,” said Bryan William Lewis, a member of the 20-person charter commission, at council Wednesday. “What appealed to us on the commission is that this proposal is based on a proven model and good government practices ensconced all over North America. That is: an ombudsman with a transparency focus.”
There are many similarities between the proposed advocate position and the role of the current city ombudsman, who is also overseen by the city auditor. Both positions focus on holding the city accountable to the public. The ombudsman’s office follows up on complaints from residents about city policies that appear to be unfair or inefficient.
However, there is one considerable difference between the two positions. While the ombudsman can investigate any of the city’s administrative decisions — like inequitable parking enforcement rules or onerous tree maintenance policies — they are prohibited from investigating acts of elected officials. As proposed, the transparency advocate would explicitly be allowed to investigate elected officials and legislative acts. That could include investigations into commissioners who violate open meetings laws or fail to retain required public records.
Council was initially scheduled to move the position forward during last week’s meeting. But commissioners expressed concern that they hadn’t been given enough time to review the proposal, delaying the vote a week. Several commissioners noted concern about the ability for the advocate to “investigate” officials.
During Wednesday’s council meeting, Atlanta’s city transparency officer, Kristen Denius, shared details of her position, which is very similar to Portland’s proposal.
“I have an investigative component [to my job] when a complaint has been made against someone within the city government around failure to comply with the provisions of the open records act,” Denius said. “However, what I see as my main goal is to avoid that from happening entirely.”
Denius said she believes her work has helped the city avoid costly litigation related to records violations.
She was joined by former City Auditor LaVonne Griffin-Valade, former City Ombudsman Michael Mills and former Oregon Public Records Advocate Ginger McCall in testifying in support of the proposal. Former Secretary of State Phil Keisling also submitted testimony in support of the position. He said that the proposal pairs well with the planned overhaul of the city’s government structure in 2024.
“At this critical moment in city history… I believe creating this Transparency Advocate position would assist our dedicated public servants better do the public’s work,” Keisling wrote, “and serve to engender greater public trust in that work.”
Yet, commissioners weren’t convinced.
“You know, this looks interesting,” Commissioner Mingus Mapps said. “But I sure would like to see more of a public engagement process on this.”
Rede explained that the charter review commission had held several public meetings since 2021, when the transparency advocate position was first floated to the commission. Mapps and his four colleagues all insisted that process wasn’t sufficient.
Elected officials made this same critique last year in regards to the charter commission’s proposal to change the city’s form of government. Mapps originally proposed holding his own focus groups to gather community input on the proposal before it went to voters, despite the commission already holding more than 80 public meetings on the proposal. The proposal passed with 57% approval.
“I would encourage us to not cut corners here,” Mapps said Wednesday.
Mayor Ted Wheeler pointed to the passage of a previous charter amendment sent to the ballot by City Council as a reason why he wanted to delay the current proposal. In 2017, City Council voted to send a measure to the ballot that would increase the independence of the city auditor’s office. The measure passed, and Wheeler said the city is still debating the details of that measure.
“That weighs on me,” Wheeler said. “I want to have all the questions answered … to get this right.”
Wheeler said he’s still not clear how a single person would resolve the city’s complicated public records issues and he wants to understand the long-term plan to fund the new position.
Commissioner Carmen Rubio said she didn’t fully understand what systemic gaps the position was proposed to fill.
“I want to support this concept,” Rubio said. “I just need more time to study it and learn it so I can feel good supporting this.”
Commissioners’ concerns were detailed in Ryan’s resolution. The resolution, which appeared to be shared among commissioners prior to the Wednesday meeting, instructed Rede to review the city’s current transparency-related policies, ensure procedures are in place to train city officials on public records laws, further explore the concept of a transparency advocate, and review the cost required to fund the position.
Rede contended that this work was already reflected in the material she had provided council offices over the past several weeks.
“I’m disappointed at the lack of engagement prior to this meeting,” Rede said. “It’s possible that maybe you didn’t take this as seriously as you should have.”
Ryan’s resolution offered no timeline for when Rede should complete the additional work, and it’s not clear when the advocate position might be floated to council again.