Portland City Council will decide Wednesday whether or not Portlanders should vote on the creation of a new city watchdog position responsible for ensuring the city is following public records laws, like posting meeting agendas and notes, and following best practices for government transparency. The proposal for a Transparency Advocate is supported by the city auditor and, if approved by council, would appear on the special election ballot in May.
"This is the unfinished business of the charter commission,” City Auditor Simone Rede told the Mercury. “In order for the public to have trust that our new form of government is developing as intended, we need to have clear channels for the public to be involved and participate in their government."
The proposal for the creation of a transparency advocate in Portland stemmed from the city’s Charter review process, during which a volunteer commission proposed amendments to Portland’s charter, which functions as the city’s constitution. The proposal was first pitched to the commission in June 2021, supported by transparency advocates with Open Oregon, ACLU Oregon, the League of Women Voters, and the Oregon chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. However, as the Charter Review Commission focused on overhauling the city’s form of government, the proposal to create a transparency advocate within the City Auditor’s office was not prioritized. When the commission voted on their final charter amendments in December 2022, commission members opted to refer the proposal to City Council for final determination, citing a lack of time to familiarize themselves with the specifics of the proposal.
The coalition of organizations supporting the transparency advocate proposal found a new champion in Rede, who took office in January. While City Council has yet to engage with the six Charter proposals advanced to them for final deliberation, Rede has the power to bring the proposal to council directly for a vote.
“I recognize this is probably faster and sooner in my term than I would typically be bringing a proposal to council, but I truly feel that it has the community support it needs,” Rede said.
As proposed, the Transparency Advocate would serve as both a resource to the public to answer questions and take complaints, as well as work internally with city bureaus to improve their transparency with the public. The advocate’s work could include ensuring Portlanders have access to information about city committees, determining barriers to the public’s access to information, and training bureau staff on best practices for government transparency.
Notably, the Transparency Advocate would not explicitly be an advocate for the public, but rather an advocate for transparency itself. For example, if a Portlander wanted to tune into a public advisory committee meeting on city budget decisions or police oversight, but found that there was no public information available on when the meeting was or how to watch it—a violation of public meeting laws—they could raise that concern with the Transparency Advocate to address. However, if a Portlander complained to the advocate that the Portland police union and city are having closed door meetings about contract negotiations, the advocate wouldn't pursue that complaint because closed door meetings are part of the legal bargaining process.
“We see the Transparency Advocate [as someone who can create] an atmosphere of transparency in the city where the default is putting things in places that are easy for the public to find,” Debbie Aiona, Action Committee chair with the League of Women Voters of Portland, said.
In preparation for taking the proposal to council, Rede worked with supporters and city legal staff to specify the language in the proposal to make sure the position could be implemented swiftly, as well as “protect it from challenges from other city leaders,” like elected officials who would be under the purview of the Transparency Advocate.
“I think it's important to make that distinction because of our changing form of government,” Rede said. “This proposal is really a complement to the charter reforms that were passed in November, especially as we grow our city council and grow a true legislative branch, that we have the ability to monitor how transparent and open those practices are.”
According to Rede, Mayor Ted Wheeler’s office gave some “pushback” against the proposal when the Auditor’s office approached him about it. Wheeler’s office did not respond to the Mercury’s request for comment about what his concerns are, but Rede indicated that some city commissioners raised concerns about a perceived lack of public engagement around the proposal. During the Charter Review Commission’s November 2022 comment period, the Transparency Advocate proposal received 20 public comments.
City council will vote whether to send the proposal to Portland voters Wednesday at 2 pm.