Portland City Auditor Seeks More Autonomy For Her Office

By Amelia Templeton (OPB)
Nov. 30, 2016 4:23 p.m.

Portland's city auditor is calling for changes to the city charter to give her office more autonomy.   

The auditor is an elected official who manages an office of about 60 employees. The office handles a variety of programs related to government transparency and oversight. Current auditor, Mary Hull Caballero, won election in 2015.  

Her office audits the performance of the city's bureaus, hears appeals of city decisions and oversees city elections. The auditor's office also includes the city's Independent Police Review division and the city's Ombudsman.  

"There are six elected officials in the city of Portland. Five make up the mayor and city council. As the auditor it's my job to keep an eye on those five," Hull Caballero says.

Portland is the only city in Oregon with an independent, elected auditor. Washington County, Multnomah County, and the regional government agency Metro all elect auditors, but they have more limited responsibilities than Hull Caballero.

But Hull Caballero says the way the auditor's office is set up limits her independence and ability to be critical of the mayor and council.

The council sets the auditor's budget every year, and her office has to get approval for hiring and procurement decisions from the city's Office of Management and Finance, which is among the bureaus the auditor's office is supposed to review.

"My goal would be to be more like the Secretary of State's office," she says. "The decisions around personnel, procurement, the legal functions, budgeting, those decisions would be more under the roof of the auditor's office, with accountability coming from an independent third party."

The Office of Management and Finance has in recent years been at the center of several controversies. Portland Mayor Charlie Hales fired the bureau's director in 2013, and more recently has used the office to implement some of the signature pieces of his policy to address homelessness.

He's used OMF to purchase storage containers for homeless people's belongings and to fund the cleanup and management of homeless street camps. The Joint Office of Homeless Services would normally oversee such efforts.

In addition to seeking an exemption from OMF oversight for the auditor's office, Hull Caballero wants more control over her budget, and the ability to get independent legal advice.

She says she intends to ask the mayor and city council in January to refer a proposal to the May ballot that would propose amendments to the city's charter and give her office more authority and independence.

Portland has an unusual commission form of government. The mayor and council members serve as both the legislative branch of government, responsible for crafting legislation and appropriating the city's budget every year, and the executive branch, responsible for managing the city bureaus that spend that money.

As a result, during the budget process, Hull Caballero says, city council members generally defend their bureaus, leaving the auditor's office as an easy target for cuts.

"They have a vested interest in not funding this office at the level that I think it should be funded, because if they are giving me a dollar, their bureaus are losing a dollar, because there's a finite amount of money in the budget process," she says.

Hull Caballero says her budget has remained fairly consistent at around $10 million a year, but last year, the council cut it by about 1 percent to help fund the city's affordable housing priorities.

Gary Blackmer served as Portland's auditor for ten years, working alongside Mayor Vera Katz and Mayor Tom Potter.

He says during his tenure, he was asked just twice if his office had adequate funding, and was generally shut out of the budget process.

"I had that experience year after year. The auditor has no vote on the budget. So it's basically what the city council agrees to give the auditor," Blackmer says.  

Blackmer says he supports Hull Caballero's proposals to give the auditor more autonomy and an independent budget process.  

"An auditor's job is not to make city council happy," he says. "It's really difficult to sort through and separate budget decisions from the process of doing conscientious good audit work."

Portland Mayor Charlie Hales said he will not take a position on the proposal since it will be taken up after he leaves office at the end of the year.

A spokesman for Mayor-Elect Ted Wheeler said Wheeler has a briefing set up to discuss the proposal with the auditor in mid-December, and would not comment on it before then.

Incoming Commissioner Chloe Eudaly is also expecting a briefing on the proposal next week. Staff for Commissioner Nick Fish said he was generally supportive of the proposal, and looks forward to a discussing the details.

Hull Caballero, who has had a rocky relationship with Mayor Hales, said she believes the proposal will get a fair hearing under Mayor-Elect Ted Wheeler.

"I do believe he'd be more open to them, simply because he currently is the Oregon Treasurer, and he's enjoyed the kind of independence that I'm proposing."