A constant worry for auditors’ offices is their own independence. The Association of Local Government Auditors (ALGA) deals with these concerns all the time. When performance auditors rile mayors and department heads with negative audits, retaliation can come in the form of budget cuts, slow action on personnel requests or even suggestions that auditor functions be eliminated. David Jones, Seattle City Auditor and chair of ALGA’s advocacy committee, says “We frequently find that local government auditors are under attack.”
When Mary Hull Caballero became Portland City Auditor two and a half years ago, she immediately entered a situation in which she felt her office was embattled. The office was working on an audit of the budget office, which was simultaneously discussing her upcoming budget. That created a very uncomfortable situation. Other tensions quickly materialized. The Portland City Auditor has an ombudsman function and the mayor at the time was displeased with its reports on city agencies. He began to suggest that the ombudsman office should be eliminated.
More problems developed over time. For example, the way the city charter was written, Caballero’s office depended on the city attorney for legal advice, but that office also gave advice to officials her office was investigating.
At the end of last year, Caballero began pushing the idea of a ballot measure to protect auditor independence. The Portland auditor’s office had changed substantially over the years, adding a wide variety of new responsibilities. She felt the city charter had fallen behind and didn’t reflect the office that existed in the 21st Century.
Although one council member initially appeared to oppose the idea of amending the city charter, the ballot measure was unanimously referred to voters. On May 16th, 86 percent of Portland voters approved the measure. The amendment to the city charter now provides the auditor with more control over budgeting, human resources and contracting. The office will be getting a new staff attorney, who will operate independently of the City Attorney. The ombudsman office is now protected by being included in the charter.
We talked with the City Auditor yesterday about the impact of the ballot measure. Our edited conversation follows.
B&G: We were startled by how overwhelmingly voters approved the ballot measure. You did not campaign aggressively for the measure and did not raise money to promote it. What messages do you take out of this victory?
Caballero: I think it’s a reflection of how much the public appreciates independent assessments of government. It’s a reflection of the work that’s been done in this office over the years. I don’t think the measure was hurt when the President fired the FBI director [about a week before the vote]. That was a reminder of how much people appreciate and respect independent assessments. They need information they can rely on that is produced at a very high quality.
B&G: What’s been the reaction to the vote?
Caballero: Several other auditors have told me they are now looking at revising and updating their charters. Everybody is shocked by the result. It emboldens people. Our power doesn’t reside in city hall. It resides outside city hall. This is an example of how much more beloved we are by the public than by the people in our government.
B&G: Portland’s current mayor is much friendlier toward the audit office and function than the mayor who was in office when your term started. Were the changes in charter still necessary?
Caballero: I wanted the structure of the organization to protect the employees who work in the auditor’s office. I didn’t want them to have to rely on the strength of any one individual auditor or on having a mayor with an appreciation for accountability. Our current mayor has that. But my goal was to have a structure put in place so that they would be protected organizationally.
It’s also important to note that the mere appearance of an auditor’s dependent relationship with the people they’re auditing is a problem. It hurts our credibility if people think we’re not calling the shots we need to be calling.
B&G: The city council will still make decisions on your budget. Can you explain what the change to the city charter means, as it relates to your budget?
Caballero: What we got in the charter change was an expression of the role that this office plays in city government. It has responsibilities separate and apart from the other elected officials and the budget should be based on the responsibilities of the auditor’s office. That seems squishy and aspirational, but it’s a sea change in the way things have been done. It has changed the way we talk about the budget and the way it will be presented to the council in the future.
The council articulates policy priorities like paving streets or getting homeless people off the streets. My office should always be participating in budget cuts for financial reasons, but not for priority reasons. The accountability budget shouldn’t be cut because you want to pave more streets.
[Note: More information on the ballot measure is available in a report on the charter amendment from the City Club of Portland. We also wrote a brief blog post in January about the Portland city council’s discussions of this issue before they decided to refer the measure to voters.]