When Portlanders voted to change to the city’s commission form of government in November, they opted for a complex system designed to be more representative and equitable. But the city’s independent auditor says in order to achieve those goals, a structure for accountability and transparency must be codified as well. Portland Auditor Simone Rede says that’s what led her to propose the creation of a Transparency Advocate to the city council. After nearly three hours of testimony and discussion the five city commissioners voted to “indefinitely table” her proposal. Instead, they passed a resolution put forward by Commissioner Dan Ryan that directed the auditor’s office to conduct a series of transparency inquiries — a proposal Rede says she had not been consulted on or even been made aware of. She joins us to tell us more about the need for transparency, how her office has been working with community and civic groups to institutionalize it, and how she sees the process moving forward.
The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a vounteer:
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. A proposal to create a new transparency advocate position in Portland’s city government hit a big snag last week. The idea came from the Charter Review Commission, a group of Portlanders who convinced voters in November to massively overhaul the way city government is set up. But last week the City Council refused to put a separate transparency advocate question in front of voters, this coming May. Instead, the commissioners indefinitely tabled the resolution and instructed the city auditor to do more research and community outreach on this proposal. Simone Rede is Portland’s new independently elected auditor and she joins us now. It’s good to have you on Think Out Loud.
Simone Rede: Thank you for having me.
Miller: Can you explain what the transparency advocate would do?
Rede: Sure. So the proposal that I presented to council last week was to create a position in my office that would be available to the public and city employees and it would be empowered to investigate the acts of city bureaus, as well as city officials, when it comes to resolving issues of openness and transparency.
Miller: And what would it take for some issue or some act, to actually be put in front of this transparency advocate?
Rede: Well, much like our ombudsman function, which resides in the Auditor’s Office, this position would take complaints from the public as well as city employees and it would also be empowered to do systemic reviews that they initiate on their own. So it would be two-fold in terms of responding to complaints, but also initiating reviews where there may be patterns of a lack of transparency or openness.
Miller: I’m glad you mentioned the ombudsman, the position that’s already in your office, because I think there’s been some questions about overlap here. How would these two roles be different?
Rede: The main difference is the scope of review. Our ombudsman, which has been in place over a decade - they are solely able to investigate administrative acts across the city. So they’re prevented from looking into the activities of elected officials. The other difference is that while our ombudsman is empowered to investigate all types of complaints when it comes to injustice or unfairness experienced by city government, this position would be dedicated to looking into concerns regarding records or transparency.
Miller: That first part, though, seems really significant, because right now the ombudsman has the power to look into administrative acts, the actions of the government, but not the elected officials themselves. We are about to have many more elected officials because of the charter review changes that Portlanders did have a chance to vote on and overwhelmingly said yes to. Do you see a connection between this transparency advocate position and the changes that are being implemented right now in city government?
Rede: Absolutely. That is why I was proactive in bringing this to council when I did, and asking for it to be put on the May 2023 ballot. As soon as my term began in January, I was able to see firsthand that the transition to transform our government, including the way we elect our leaders, is definitely underway. The charter reforms that you mentioned, voters approving with overwhelming support in November, are certainly being implemented now and the point you make about our growing legislative body is directly responsive to that change. My intent was to bring this to voters in May so that my office could begin hiring for the position and using our existing systems and resources to get the function up and running by the time those charter reforms are effective, January 2025.
Miller: We reached out to Portland City Commissioner Dan Ryan’s office this morning to ask if he had any statement related to the process of creating or passing the resolution or the concerns that you expressed in the meeting last week. And we have not gotten a response so far. But he did have a lot to say in that meeting last week, including this: he said, “The unclear goals of the auditor’s office proposal, as it related to public records, has many of us perplexed.” What are the goals of this proposal?
Rede: Well, the goals are very much in line with the mission of the auditor’s office, which is to promote an open and accountable government. Again, speaking to the changes that are underway to transform our government, we’re looking at a growing legislative body and potentially having offices available to the community in their elected district. That creates a lot of risk for accountability and transparency because instead of centralizing those services in city headquarters, we’re potentially decentralizing them and creating the opportunity for folks to go unchecked.
Miller: So, I mean, what you’re saying here is that it’s the current elected officials who would perhaps have more scrutiny on themselves and their actions if this were to pass, and they’re the ones who last week said, “Hold off, we don’t want to give this to voters just yet.”
Rede: That’s right.
Miller: Another thing that Commissioner Dan Ryan said is that the proposal before the city council was rushed. Can you give us a sense for the timeline as you see it?
Rede: Sure, thank you for asking that. So I think as you mentioned in your introduction, this proposal came from the Charter Review Commission that was active starting in 2020 through December 2022. There were concerns raised about transparency during public meetings of that commission, which was appointed by the city council. Those issues were first raised in May of 2021 and a proposal, the one that I have been working to refine and can communicate with city council, was proposed in June of 2021. Following that introduction, there were two public hearings, in November of 2022 about this specific proposal and the commission voted 12-0 to recommend this to council in December 2022.
As soon as I had the opportunity, I worked with experts across my office. My staff worked with the council offices to convey the proposal and get their input. We had it scheduled to present to the council on February 15. My office took it off of the council agenda because of concerns raised by council offices. We took the additional week to hear their input, and then we had the presentation where we discussed this proposal. I think it took over two hours, but we had experts and community members that were contributing to that discussion with council last Wednesday.
Miller: I should say some of the folks who spoke in favor of this were your predecessor, the former city auditor, former city ombudsman, former Oregon public records advocate, Ginger Mccall, who our listeners may remember as well as a former Oregon Secretary of State. Can you give us a sense for the community engagement that you or your office did before the hearing yesterday? I mean, over the last six weeks since you’ve taken office, what did you do to try to either build support for this or build understanding about it?
Rede: As I mentioned, there was no opposition to this proposal when it was voted on by the commission. So that really left me to work with the proponents of the measure to refine that and make sure that it was going to be successful and implementable by my office. Over the last two months, my office engaged with the charter commissioners, we spoke with community members and technical experts, including the folks that testified from the state public records advocate to the transparency officer in the city of Atlanta. We worked with the folks who originally proposed this, including representatives from the ACLU of Oregon, the League of Women Voters, the Greater Society of Professional Journalists and a good governance group called Open Oregon. We also solicited and considered feedback from the council offices and the City Attorney’s Office.
Miller: I’d like to take a step back here just to drill down on why this matters. Can you just remind us what kinds of public records or transparency issues have come up in Portland in recent years and the kinds of things that this new advocate might take on?
Rede: Our office, the Auditor’s Office, which is the home of our ombudsman, which is where this transparency advocate would work - we’ve routinely come across issues of openness and transparency, and we’ve investigated those issues to help the city become more open and accountable. Some examples are when the public is not being notified adequately of public meetings, that’s the type of case that we would look into. Sometimes, if materials are not made available ahead of time, or following the meeting, we would also be interested in looking at how well our elected officials are retaining public records and managing them for public reference. My office also houses the archives division and a primary responsibility of that part of our office is training public officials as well as city employees on maintaining public records.
Miller: So instead of approving or sending this government watchdog position to voters in May, the council unanimously approved an alternative resolution that would also directly affect your work in your office. What exactly did they ask you to do?
Rede: Well, that is something I’m still taking in. I have a copy of this resolution that was handed to me during last Wednesday’s meeting. That was the first time I became aware of an actual resolution. There’s a list of five different requests that the council is making of my office to perform. And I honestly need to do the work of reviewing that to understand how it relates exactly to the proposal that I brought to the council that afternoon.
Miller: What authority does the city council have to direct your office to do things?
Rede: It doesn’t have the authority. The way that our city charter reads, there are a number of duties that my office is required to perform. And if there’s anything beyond the scope of those duties, it requires the auditor’s consent. So I’m not quite sure how this resolution squares with the provisions of our existing city charter.
Miller: Well, that seems like a pretty big deal. If we can think of a charter as a kind of constitution, and when the different branches of the federal government are at loggerheads, we call it a constitutional crisis. I mean, is that too strong a way to put this right now?
Rede: I’m afraid that the resolution that was brought forth on Wednesday by council in place of the proposal that I made just reflects the lack of engagement and understanding about the current structure of my office. Adding a transparency advocate is nothing to be afraid of. It’s completely consistent with the mission in my office which is to promote openness and transparency. The transparency advocate that I proposed would have been in line and responsive to the changes that our city is making as it forms a new legislative and executive body and it provides a necessary check on those two branches.
Miller: So how do you plan to respond to the resolution from the city council asking you to do various things?
Rede: I plan to take some time to reflect on the events of last week and certainly reconnect with the community partners that brought this proposal forward, the same groups that we worked with to refine the proposal. I think we need to think about the timeline and what’s feasible, as well as how we can work with the council again moving forward to make sure that they fully understand and take seriously the issues that this position was designed to address.
Miller: Is there another way to put this position directly in front of Portland voters, going around members of the Portland City Council?
Rede: Not to my knowledge. There were a number of recommendations and proposals that came out of the Charter Review Commission, which again is empowered once every 10 years to review changes that need to be made to the city charter. There were a handful of measures that were unanimously approved and those were referred directly to voters. Those are proposals that I presented in January as part of my duties as city auditor and then this was one of the recommended measures that the commission has asked council to consider. So I moved very quickly to make sure that my office was leading an effort that was responsive to their recommendations.
Miller: Finally, what does the vote last week tell you about the relationship between the current city council and your own office?
Rede: To me, it shows that there is tension in our relationship and I don’t mean that in a negative way. I think it’s a necessary ingredient when it comes to making change. And I plan on continuing to apply pressure to make sure that Portlanders get the kind of government they voted for and the kind of openness and transparency they deserve.
Miller: Simone Rede, thanks very much for your time today.
Rede: Thank you.
Miller: Simone Rede is Portland’s City Auditor, elected by voters last May. She took office in January.
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