Earlier this week, City Auditor Gary Blackmer asked the city council to put a shiny new charter amendment on this fall's ballot.
What's so important that Blackmer thinks it should be enshrined in the city's charter—AKA the city's constitution?
Why, the city's ombudsman, of course.
The ombudsman—currently played by a guy named Michael Mills—is in charge of citizen's complaints about the city. In his 2007 annual report, Mills outlined some of the issues his office tackled: advertisements tacked high up on utility poles, inconsistencies in the way city agencies handle public record requests, Warner Pacific College's potential leasing of Mt. Tabor Park property, dumpsters on sidewalks, and the replacement of city hall's marble stair steps. It's snoozy stuff, to be sure. But the office, as Blackmer writes in a resolution he'd planned to bring to the city council on August 20, "is an important service in accountable governance."
(Are you still there? Sorry, it's August. City hall is sloooow. But I swear, this is about to get interesting!)
The ombudsman is so important, in fact, that Blackmer would like the role cemented in the city charter. It's currently in the city code, which makes it vulnerable to the whims of the city council (whereas the charter can only be amended by a public vote).
"The reality is, any Wednesday with three votes they could get rid of the ordinance and get rid of any powers the ombudsman has," says Mills. (Indeed, former Commissioner Jim Francesconi reportedly floated the idea back in 2003.)
Putting the ombudsman in the charter "provides some permanence and stature," says Mills, who's been working for the city as an ombudsman since 1993. And the city can plop it onto this fall's ballot at no charge.
This all seems so damn boring and straightforward, doesn't it?
Until Commissioner Dan Saltzman got wind of it. On Tuesday afternoon, August 19, he told Blackmer he didn't see the need to amend the charter.
"If we're asking voters to change what's essentially our constitution, he'd like to have a little more discussion about it," adds Saltzman policy advisor Matt Grumm. The charter amendment "kind of came out of nowhere. We just saw it Monday."
Mills says the idea isn't new: It was originally on a list for the Charter Review Commission to consider in 2006. Since the commission was dealing with much bigger issues—like changing the city's form of government—"they never got to it," Mills explains.
Now, without Saltzman's support, Blackmer has opted to pull the idea for now.
"It wasn't supposed to be controversial," Mills says. "This is a surprise and a disappointment."