Future Of Portland Transparency Watchdog In Limbo
Portland, Ore. – Tension was palpable during Portland City Council’s February 22nd meeting, as commissioners and City Auditor Simone Rede sparred over creating a Transparency Watchdog position in the auditor’s office. The idea was brought forth by the Charter Review Commission in December and the position would serve as a voice of the public to ensure public record laws are being upheld, remove any barriers that block the public’s access to information, train bureau staff on best practices for government transparency and to investigate acts by elected officials. Currently there is no system in place to do so. Madame Auditor was hoping to get the amendment on the May 2023 ballot.
“I was disappointed council chose not to act with urgency on this issue. The charter commission advanced the amendment with zero opposition,” Rede told KXL over the phone. “It is language that very closely mirrors the authority that my office has to do investigations. The key difference is that it would create a position that is dedicated to looking into issues of transparency or records. It would also give my office an authority it doesn’t have to investigate legislative acts, or acts of elected officials.”
What came as the biggest shock to Rede and other supporters of the watchdog position was when commissioner Dan Ryan brought forth his own own resolution surrounding issues of transparency, that had not been sent to the auditor’s office prior to the meeting.
“Council request the auditor preform the following analysis: One, review city policies that promote transparency and accessed information. Including the adoption of open data initiatives, freedom of information laws, and whistle blower protection laws. Two, review existing efforts to increase public participation in decision making and make recommendations on ways to improve those efforts… Three, ensure procedures are in place to train government officials and employees on the importance of transparency…. Four, explore the concept of a transparency advocate that would review acts of city bureaus and city officials. Build upon current public records practices and aim to further increase transparency engagement,” Ryan said in his statement, going on to ask the auditor to also review costs and encouraged her to file regular progress reports with the council.
Throughout the meeting Ryan and his colleagues emphasized they do support more transparency, listing off a number of actions already being taken to make government more transparent. This included hiring four new employees for the public record’s office and the creation of a new team to study best practices for sharing data.
This came after a number of spats over the issue, as commissioners voiced opposition over the lack of public outreach. Wheeler even questioned a number of people that spoke during public comment. Pressing them on why they thought the charter commission chose to put this amendment in front of council. One of Wheeler’s remarks during public comment in particular raised the eyebrows of a member of the pro-transparency coalition.
“I’m sure you would agree, if something goes out to the voters and it regarding a proposal to increase transparency of the city of Portland and investigate elected officials, it’s pretty certain it’s going to pass. Therefore, wouldn’t you agree with me that it’s important that we get this right?”
To which the coalition member responded “If you think that something represents the will of voters, why would that make you less likely to support.”
Wheeler then refuting him with an example of a previous transparency charter proposal brought forth by the last auditor in 2017 that is still tied up over budget issues.
Rede remains that council handled this poorly by springing a completely different resolution on her.
“It’s inconsistent with the values that council spoke to, and the value of transparency, which the city adopted in 2020. This council says it values transparency, but there is an unwillingness to take action to be consistent with that value,” Rede said. “There was a series of departures from the typical process, including not submitting that document in advance of the meeting for anyone to review. And then the suspension of the rules in order to get it passed. So I’m curious to hear from council what their expectation is that I would even follow through. Because I’m not sure exactly how to respond to it.”
While Jude al-Ghazal Stone, a representative with The ACLU of Oregon was surprised at the unorthodox behavior from council, he said there was a feeling that council would table the auditor’s resolution because of previous engagements they had over the issue.
“They were trying to get the auditor to weaken the language to take out the transparency position’s investigative authority. So it certainly raises some questions about the authenticity of the concerns that they suddenly raised at the council meeting,” al-Ghazal Stone said. “A representative of Commissioner Dan Ryan’s office had reached out to us trying to basically take away and weaken that language.”
When pressed for further comment regarding Madame Auditor’s displeasure with how this is unfolding, Commissioner Mingus Mapps told KXL in a statement his issue is over a lack of input from the public, writing: “The Charter Review Commission did not send this proposal to the ballot because the Commission ran out of time to fully vet this plan… Due to the fact that the proposal came forward on the last day that the Charter Commissioners met, there has been no public engagement process by either the auditor or the Charter Review Commission… communicated directly with the auditor, before the Council hearing, that I was disappointed in the lack of community engagement and vetting of the proposal.”
Commissioner Carmen Rubio echoed in her statement to KXL what she and her colleagues said throughout the meeting, that they do value transparency, but wants a better picture of what they’re currently doing before rushing into something new: “if there is one important thing I’ve learned in my last two years here it’s the need for a baseline of understanding as a starting place.”
For now, Rede is confused over what will happen next. It was the first time in Mayor Wheeler’s tenure that a proposal was tabled. And for it to be taken off the table, city council must vote to do so. Meaning, there’s little the auditor can do.
“I think we’ll circle back with the proponents of this proposal, and figure out how we can get council to revisit it,” Rede said.
al-Ghazal Stone says he and other members of the transparency coalition will be waiting in the wings.
“We’re looking for when’s the next earliest opportunity that we can bring this forward. I’ll be curious to see how the auditor reacts. If she wants to amend the current one, or bring a new one forth since the ball is in city council’s court,” the ACLU Oregon lead administrative associate said. “Public trust in the city is so low right now. People see headline after headline coming out about the lack of transparency, coupled with an inefficiency we see across the board. There’s just no consistency or standardization of how public information is made available.”