Portland City Council sidelined a proposal Wednesday that would’ve empowered Portland voters to determine if the city should create a new transparency watchdog. Citing concerns with rushed public engagement on the proposal, council tabled it and approved a last-minute resolution directing the City Auditor to review transparency practices in the city.
“The Transparency Advocate would have reviewed and improved transparency practices as the City goes through a major transition,” City Auditor Simone Rede, who brought the proposal to council, said in a press statement following the vote. “This delay means our capacity for oversight will certainly lag behind the transition to a new form of government.”
Born through the recent Charter review process, the Transparency Advocate proposal aimed to create a new position in the City Auditor’s office that would explicitly work on ensuring Portland officials followed public records laws and best practices for transparent governance. 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. Supporters of the proposal argued that the Transparency Advocate would be particularly important as the city expands its City Council and changes its form of government in 2025.
While the proposal was originally referred to council by the Charter Review Commission, Rede took on the proposal when her term began in January. Rede spent the past month finalizing the proposal and vetting the language with legal staff before bringing it to City Council to vote on whether or not the proposal should be placed on the May ballot.
Over a dozen members of the public spoke in support of the proposal, including representatives from ACLU Oregon, League of Women Voters, and the Society of Professional Journalists. Former Oregon Public Records Advocate Ginger McCall and Kristen Denius, the Chief Transparency Officer for the city of Atlanta, also spoke in support of the proposal. Denius told council how her position, which the proposed Transparency Advocate closely mirrored, has protected the city from lawsuits over compliance with public records laws.
Many commenters addressed City Council’s concerns with an alleged lack of public engagement on the proposal, as reported by the Mercury and Oregonian.
“You’re not voting for or against a law today,” said K. Rambo, Vice President of the Oregon chapter of Society of Professional Journalists. “You’re not even voting for or against creating an office of a transparency advocate. You’re voting for or against what is supposed to be the truest form of public engagement in a democracy: voting.”
Mayor Ted Wheeler said that, if given the opportunity, Portland voters would probably approve the creation of a transparency advocate—which is why he didn’t support the proposal.
“If something goes out to the voters and it says ‘a proposal to increase transparency of the city of Portland and investigate elected officials’… it’s pretty certain it’s going to pass,” Wheeler said. “Wouldn’t you agree with me that it’s important that we get this right?”
Wheeler raised concerns that if the proposal had not been properly vetted before voters passed it, the city could face challenges implementing the position or adjusting the advocate's duties retroactively.
Rede emphasized that the language in the proposal had been vetted by her office and legal staff to make sure that it could be implemented properly, and that the proposal had received public engagement through the Charter review process.
“I want to support this concept,” Commissioner Carmen Rubio said, “I just need a little more time to study it and learn it and see how other cities operate with it.”
Rede and her office conducted outreach to all city commissioners prior to bringing the proposal to council for a vote. Council was originally scheduled to vote on the proposal last week, but Rede postponed the vote by a week after receiving feedback that the commissioners had concerns about the proposal. City Council was also notified of the proposal on January 19, when the Charter Review Commission and Rede gave a presentation on proposed charter amendments that had been referred to city council for final approval. The council could have started engaging with the six Charter amendments referred to them by the commission following the presentation in January, but did not.
It’s also unclear how much the city commissioners had engaged with the Transparency Advocate proposal, even after they knew they were going to vote on it. While responding to a public comment on the proposal, Wheeler said that he didn’t know what the proposed ballot language would be, and that he wouldn’t “pretend to know.” The specific language that would appear on the May ballot, if council approved the proposal, was included in a packet all city commissioners received at least several days ahead of the vote.
“I’m disappointed in the lack of engagement prior to this meeting,” Rede told the commissioners. “Maybe you didn’t take this as seriously as you should have.”
After talking about the importance of transparency for nearly three hours, Portland City Council members voted to table the proposal and suspend council rules, allowing Commissioner Dan Ryan to introduce a surprise resolution that directed the auditor to conduct a review of current transparency practices in the city. The resolution had not been shared with Rede or the public prior to being introduced.
“This is the first I’ve heard of [this resolution], so I don’t think this honors the spirit of transparency you all are passionate about,” Rede said. “I’m not willing to commit to an alternative use of my office’s resources without my knowledge.”
The substitute resolution, which was unanimously approved by city council, directs the auditor’s office to review the city’s policies that promote transparency, make recommendations on how to improve public participation in city decision making, and ensure procedures are in place to train government officials on the importance of transparency—all work that would have been conducted by the Transparency Advocate. In a press release following the vote, Rede bristled at the direction from council.
“It is inappropriate for Council to ask the Auditor to perform any duties without her consent,” Rede said. “It is a threat to my office’s independence.”
Multiple commissioners said they were interested in continuing conversations about the proposal for a Transparency Advocate. Rede has the power to bring the proposal back to council, but—because the proposal is currently tabled—the city council must first approve that the proposal be taken off the table to be reconsidered.