money_yacht.png
Katie Turner

Portland Commissioner Amanda Fritz might have found a new home for a program that will finance city campaigns with public money: her own office.

In a code change that's been in the works for months, Fritz plans to bring a proposal before Portland City Council in the near future to take over the nascent Open and Accountable Elections program, currently controlled by the city's Office of Neighborhood Involvement, according to her chief of staff, Tim Crail. If approved, Fritz's office would get a chunk of money to hire program staff, tap a consultant to help suss out fine-grained policy rules, and appoint a Public Campaign Finance Commission to oversee the program, which will take effect following the November 2018 elections.

The upcoming ordinance is the latest development for a Fritz passion project that's been something of a hot potato in City Hall. It's also a move that would likely ensure the program is passed from office to office in years to come.

Open and Accountable elections is geared toward helping lesser-known candidates secure enough funding to make a run at city office. Once they've proven they're credible by collecting enough donations (at least $2,500 total from 250 people for city commissioner or auditor candidates, and at least $5,000 total from 500 people for mayoral candidates), candidates will be able to leverage $6 in public money for every $1 in contributions of up to $50. That means your $50 donation to a candidate using the system could net $300 in city funds.

In exchange for that boost, candidates have to agree to spending limits and can't accept contributions of more than $250, or take money from entities like political action committees or labor organizations.

It's a system that advocates say will improve city elections, but no one besides Fritz seems to want to take it on.

When the commissioner first proposed Open and Accountable Elections in 2016, she'd hoped the program would be administered by City Auditor Mary Hull Caballero, who currently oversees city elections. The problem: Hull Caballero wanted no part of it. Neither did the Multnomah County Elections Division.

So in December 2016, Fritz instead proposed the new election system be given to the Office of Neighborhood Involvement (ONI), which she controlled at the time. Weeks later, the commissioner won the support of two outgoing city council members—Charlie Hales and Steve Novick—and the new elections system was adopted into law. But Fritz lost control of ONI when Mayor Ted Wheeler took office in January 2017, and staffers for Commissioner Chloe Eudaly, who now runs the bureau, privately groused about being saddled with implementing the campaign finance program.

So now Fritz might be getting it back—for a while at least.

Crail says the potential changes are being made "working cooperatively with Commissioner Eudaly’s office on how to get things moving. In conversations together, we decided it would be the best approach."

Fritz's office is in the process of crafting an ordinance that will allow Fritz to take over, but also ensure that no commissioner who's campaigning for re-election can oversee the public financing system. Since Fritz is up for re-election in 2020, that means she'd have to hand control to someone else if she plans to run. It's not entirely clear how that would work—especially since some council members have been skeptical about the system.

Should council approve the changes, Crail says his office would be tasked with hiring two full-time employees to administer the elections program, duties that would include making sure candidates are eligible, and ensuring the system isn't being abused. The program also calls for the creation of an oversight commission to offer guidance and recommendations.

Maintaining the program's integrity will be important. Portland's last flirtation with publicly funded elections—a system dubbed Voter Owned Elections—was susceptible to fraud and eventually dismantled by voters. Fritz was the only non-incumbent to win election using that program, and has consistently touted the fact that she doesn't accept big checks in her campaigns (her largest ever contribution is $500).

Support The Portland Mercury

By law, the Open and Accountable Elections system is funded with up to 0.2 percent of the city's general fund revenue each year—somewhere in the neighborhood of $1.2 million. Council has so far declined full funding for the program, since it probably won't be put to use until 2020 (barring an unexpected election next year). The city's current budget allocated $250,000 to the program. The City Budget Office, in a report published last November [PDF], recommended putting $350,000 into the system next year, then fully funding it in the 2019-20 budget.

That budget report, by the way, also agreed with Fritz, finding that the most logical place for the program is the Auditor's Office.

"Elections related work is already conducted by that office, and the public contribution matching program would need to rely on and coordinate with the existing elections program," the report found. "Housing the program elsewhere may create unnecessary costs and administrative duplication."