The Portland City Council voted last month to indefinitely table a proposal from the city auditor to create a new transparency advocate position. Instead, they passed a different transparency resolution introduced by Commissioner Dan Ryan. We talked with Portland City Auditor Simone Rede following that vote, and she told us more about the city’s Charter Commission the proposal came out of and the community engagement process that led up to the council’s actions. Ryan joins us to share his perspective on efforts to improve transparency in the City Council, explain what his council-passed resolution would do and what he hopes to see from the auditor’s office in the coming months.
The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer:
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. Last week, the Portland City Council opted to not send a ballot measure to voters. The measure could have led to the creation of a new transparency advocate position. Instead, the Council passed a different transparency resolution, one introduced by Commissioner Dan Ryan. We talked about all of this last week with the City Auditor. Commissioner Ryan joins us to talk about it today. Dan Ryan, welcome back.
Dan Ryan: Thanks, Dave. Happy Monday.
Miller: Happy Monday to you. Why did you vote to table this resolution indefinitely, last week?
Ryan: I will say that no elected official wants to table something that could go to the voters that says “transparency” on it. So we all, collectively, were checking in with one another as we were meeting with the auditor. I had my first meeting with the auditor the Friday before the actual vote. And all of us were just noticing that it had some holes in it and we really wanted to make sure that we communicated with the auditor in her office, through her chief of staff, Reed. They had to take some more time to connect with, say, the [inaudible] directors are included in the audit, with the legal department, which has added people in their unit, to do more investigation of emails and such, records request. There’s four people doing that in the legal office.
So I think we were just all very surprised that those types of conversations had not taken place yet. And so my senior policy person, T.J. McHugh, was communicating with Reed, the chief of staff at Madam Auditor Rede’s office to make sure that they weren’t surprised that we would be offering a counterproposal and tabling this one, if in fact, we didn’t think that they were going to table it themselves to give it more time.
Miller: The auditor noted that this proposal came from more than a year and a half of work by members of the Charter Review Commission, including two public meetings about the proposal. The commission then voted unanimously to send it to the Council. And then when the auditor took office, as she explained, she met with various stakeholders and experts including Council member offices and the City Attorney’s office. So what are you saying wasn’t done? What other meetings or consultation are you saying was necessary?
Ryan: It needs to go beyond just the special interests that were supportive of this and it wasn’t recommended to go to the ballot by the Charter Commission – four people abstained, which kept it from going to the ballot. When we listened to their report in January, they thought it needed some more time. And so I think most of us on the City Council, I’ll speak for myself right now, were surprised about the rush to get this on this spring ballot. I think most of us thought there would be time to actually do this in a more transparent fashion for a transparent advocate position. But we heard from people in legal and in the bureaus that none of them had met with anyone. And when I did connect with the auditor on Friday before the actual meeting, on Wednesday, I didn’t hear from her directly that she had spoken with people in those offices.
So, it’s really important that we get it right. I’ve been on the ballot three times in less than the last three years, and you get to know the pulse of the city. And one thing I keep hearing from voters and taxpayers and Portlanders and Oregonians is that they’re really done with having things on the ballot that are easy to say “yes” to, based on the title, and then they feel like they’re punked later on, because it ends up not being what they voted for. So we just wanted to make sure this was additive at this time, with time of building efficiencies at the City of Portland. That’s really what I think the message was from the charter vote. And so we’re doing everything we can right now to transform government, so that we have less silos, that we’re more efficient, and that we’re serving the people of this city at a time of crisis.
Miller: You’re saying, why is this going so quickly? And [the auditor] did have an answer to that and I’d love to get your take on that answer. It’s that this new office would provide more oversight over the actions of elected officials, as opposed to investigating administrative acts, which can already be done by the ombudsman. Given that, and given that the number of elected officials in Portland is going to more than double in just under two years because of the commission change, the argument is that there is urgency here, to add this new layer of oversight before the new elected officials are in place. What’s your response?
Ryan: We’ll have plenty of time to get it on the November ballot. And we can, I think, get to a 5 - 0 vote when we collaborate with one another. Usually when we have something this important and complicated to go on the ballot, we have a work session. We have a chance to vet it amongst ourselves with the auditor. We’re all of us independently elected, like the Madam Auditor and we’re well aware that Portlanders want transparency. And I just have to say that there’s quite a bit of transparency. [We’ve had] 84 records requests, just my office alone, in the past year, which is about 10,000 pages of documents. None of it revealed any smoking guns, but it’s important in terms of people understanding the insides of some of our communications.
So we added those positions when I first got on Council, so that we could keep up with the amount of records requests that currently exist in our political culture. And we also put our public calendar out frequently. So I think that we can get an additive measure there. Also know that we’re moving our form of government. So actually, the actions and behaviors of our bureau directors are going to be even more important to be transparent because we’re moving towards a city manager framework and we will be removed from the executive administrative role, if you will, and be more in the legislative role. And so I think it was kind of looking at this in the old form of government, where we have to move forward as we look at it into the new roles of what will be a Council that’s more legislative in nature.
Miller: Can you help us understand the timeline of the alternate proposal that you put forward that was voted on? The rules were suspended and your alternate proposal to essentially direct the City Auditor to, not exactly go back to the drawing board, but to do more work on this; that passed unanimously. What was the timeline of your alternate proposal?
Ryan: What we really asked was that we get this right. And again, that the Madam Auditor sits with all of us in a transparent manner. Also that Madam Auditor meets with people in legal that do this type of work, the records request professionals, and also really have dialogue with bureau leadership about this so that we could come into something that we put on the November ballot with an inclusive, collaborative transparent process internally, that we can share with the community.
Miller: But back to my question, what was the timeline of your proposal in particular? I’m wondering when you shared your proposal with your colleagues on the Council, and why you didn’t share it in advance with the Auditor?
Ryan: First of all, we did share in advance, T.J. McHugh. . . again, my senior policy person did share it with the Chief of Staff on Friday, before the vote to table it. I know they had dialogue again on Tuesday, the day before. So I would assume that Madam Auditor and the Chief of Staff had conversations, so I was a little surprised to hear that it was a surprise to her. We did want to make sure that it was tabled, and that we could vet all of the key stakeholders that need to be involved with implementation, so we actually can implement this, if in fact, it’s passed. And I think that there’s plenty of time for Madam Auditor to drive this process and have it on the November ballot.
Miller: The Auditor, Simone Rede, told us that the Council cannot direct her to do things. That’s not a proper role for the five members of City Council, given that you’re all independently elected. She has to agree to what you’re asking her to do. If that’s the case, then what do you see as the road forward here?
Ryan: Well, I think it’s important that we tabled something that we didn’t think would be implemented properly. It was an example where you had five public servants doing good government and not politically performing. And we are very attached to getting this right and we will collaborate and work with her… we’re all independently elected, and we’re also asked to work with one another. I think what we hear from voters consistently is that they want us to stay focused and working on the priorities that are facing our city, and that we have to work more as a team. And so I look forward to building communication. Our door is open, and we’ll all be cooperative with her. And I think you heard that tone from all of us on the Dais off the Wednesday, we voted on this.
Miller: Dan Ryan, thanks very much for joining us.
Ryan: Oh, you’re welcome, Dave. Take care.
Miller: That was Portland Commissioner, Dan Ryan.
Contact “Think Out Loud®”
If you’d like to comment on any of the topics in this show, or suggest a topic of your own, please get in touch with us on Facebook or Twitter, send an email to email@example.com, or you can leave a voicemail for us at 503-293-1983. The call-in phone number during the noon hour is 888-665-5865.