Vote 'yes' for Portland auditor independence; lodging tax amendment: Editorial endorsement
Measure 26-189: YES
There's a good reason that no one has come out to oppose a measure on the May ballot to grant the city auditor greater independence: It's because Measure 26-189 is the easiest yes that voters have been asked to make in a long time.
The measure, spearheaded by City Auditor Mary Hull Caballero and forwarded to the ballot unanimously by the Portland City Council earlier this year, would amend the city charter to give the auditor greater control over internal functions and the budgeting process to help protect its role as an independent watchdog of the rest of city government.
Among other things, a yes vote would authorize the auditor to seek independent legal advice instead of relying on the City Attorney's office; handle its own human resources and contracting decisions; and submit a budget directly to the Council as opposed to leaving that to the city's budget office. The proposal would also formally establish in city charter the office of the ombudsman, which investigates citizens' complaints about city government.
These are not big asks, but they are important ones, particularly considering the many ways the auditor's office is tasked with keeping city government honest. Among its many duties, the office conducts performance audits of city programs; manages the lobbyist registration program; conducts administrative hearings into citizens' challenges to towing, land-use and other city actions; investigates citizens' complaints about police through its Independent Police Review division; and considers Portlanders' complaints about other city bureaus through the ombudsman's office.
Those tasks provide many ways for the auditor, who does not have a vote on the City Council, to rub commissioners the wrong way. In Portland's form of government, commissioners fill both a legislative role in setting policy and adopting budgets, as well as an executive role by serving as the head of assigned city bureaus. It's not too hard to imagine a commissioner, wounded by a critical audit of his or her bureau, happily backing a proposal to cut the auditor's budget, especially if it means more money for his or her bureaus.
But you don't even have to imagine it. Former Mayor Charlie Hales in 2016 demanded that only one of the city's six elected officials - Hull Caballero - show how her office would absorb a 5 percent cut. This wasn't due to declining revenues - a burden that Hull Caballero agrees her office should share - but rather because Hales wanted more money to spend on his priorities.
Ultimately, Hull Caballero's office took a much smaller cut than 5 percent, but the point was obvious: Her office is vulnerable in a way no other elected office is.
These kinds of critical reviews of city bureaus, conducted without fear of retribution and with the public's welfare in mind, can help build confidence in city government - provided bureaus address the problems. The public recognizes that government can make mistakes. It's the response that matters.
Portland's mayor and City Council deserve credit for their unanimous vote to send the auditor's independence proposal to the May ballot. Such a show of support reflects well on their commitment to accountability.
Hull Caballero, former city auditor LaVonne Griffin-Valade and those before them have stood up for the public by pushing city government to be more open, more transparent and more accountable. Voters can show their appreciation by building into the charter the protections needed for the office to continue doing its work fearlessly. More accountability for Portland city government? Check 'yes.'
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