Portland Auditor Mary Hull Caballero
Portland Auditor Mary Hull Caballero City of Portland
Portland's elected auditor wants you to grant her more independence from the government she's supposed to watchdog.

And if the first hearing on that proposal Wednesday was any indication, it looks like Auditor Mary Hull Caballero will get her shot. Barring enormous disagreement, Portland city council appears likely to refer a measure to the May 2017 ballot that would ask you to modify the City Charter, Portland's foremost governing document.

At issue is whether Hull Caballero is unduly beholden to city offices that she's charged with riding herd on. And while many people who testified this afternoon (including three former city auditors) agreed that was at least possible, the competing risk in some people's minds is that the auditor could be asking for too much independence.

Hull Caballero, in a sales pitch she's been fine-tuning for months, laid out a series of detailed concerns before city commissioners today.

In her view, the charter offers an outmoded picture of what the Auditor's Office actually does (it hasn't been updated in decades), and no longer provides for the type of freedom citizens need.

"Independence of the auditor’s office is something that cannot be left vulnerable to politics of the day or personalities of the moment," she told commissioners. "The auditor is not treated as an elected official but rather is treated like a bureau."

That particularly manifests itself, Hull Caballero argues, through her office's interactions with three bureaus: the City Attorney's Office, Office of Management and Finance, and the City Budget Office.

Hull Caballero has long complained she's sometimes forced to take advice from city attorneys who might also be advising a person or office the auditor's office is investigating. So she's asking for explicit permission to seek outside counsel (she currently needs to get the permission of the City Attorney's Office to do so).

The Auditor's Office also relies on the many-pronged Office of Management Finance (OMF), which contains important functions like human resources and contracting services. Hull Caballero says it's untoward that OMF has such meaningful sway over her operations, when she's in a position of investigating wrongdoing there.

The latest version of her proposal, which has undergone extensive revision, says she can hire her own employees, establish their compensation, and establish her own HR rules. It also gives the auditor's office authority to "procure or supervise the procurement of goods, services and personal services the Auditor finds necessary..."

As to Hull Caballero's concerns about the City Budget Office—which vets budget requests and makes recommendations that city council relies on—they've softened since she unveiled her ideas last year.

Back then, the auditor was seeking full independence from the budget process. Her latest suggestion makes clear she's able to write and submit her own budget directly to council, without the CBO necessarily giving input. However, city council would still have final say on her office's cash flow, and would still be allowed to ask the CBO its opinion. Beyond a provision that could let the Auditor's Office bank any money it doesn't spend in a given year, it's not clear how different that would ultimately be from the current state of affairs.

Lastly, Hull Caballero wants to enshrine the duties of the City Ombudsman's Office, which investigates citizen complaints, in charter. She'd initially mulled doing the same for the Independent Police Review, which she oversees, but pulled back at the urging of citizen groups.

There are, as you might expect, lots of questions about how this will all shake out. Though there appeared to be general support this afternoon from city commissioners to send something to voters in May, exactly what that will look like will be hammered out at a hearing last week.

Commissioner Dan Saltzman, for instance, doesn't like the idea of the Ombudsman's Office being in charter.

"There are very few positions that are spoken to in the city charter," Saltzman said this afternoon. "I am just reluctant… to place another position in the charter."

Hull Caballero opposes that stance.

Commissioner Amanda Fritz, who's taken issue with parts of the proposal, also suggested a series of changes. She wants to do away with a requirement that the auditor be a certified public accountant, certified internal auditor, or certified management accountant (Fritz said she believes the auditor role is now more executive, and that staff members can hold those qualifications). She also wants to ensure that the Auditor's Office would be subject to regular reviews from an outside organization.

At one point in the hearing, Fritz asked Hull Caballero how frequently the office would be scrutinized. Hull Caballero said that would be based on the offices "need and priorities, given funds."

"That's not very reassuring," Fritz replied.

Commissioner Nick Fish and Mayor Ted Wheeler both offered amendments of their own, meaning the actual language you might vote on in May is currently a hellscape of strikethroughs and underlined red type.

We'll learn more if it survives next week, which Hull Caballero has said she expects to happen. As she told the Mercury last year: “The question we’re asking is, ‘Will you refer this to the voters?’ It’s a weird thing for them to say, ‘No we won’t.’”