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The concept behind the City Auditor’s Office is simple: people want an objective and independent agency responsible to the public to provide oversight of city government. An office connected to the city government but not beholden to it. A place a community member or city worker can go with a complaint or concern, knowing that if the situation warrants it, the Auditor’s Office will investigate, produce results, and push for change where it’s needed. An office that audits program performance where it sees the need. A watchdog that ensures city government operates with accountability and transparency.
This Accountability Report, covering the year 2019, showcases the work we’ve done to realize this simple, yet vital concept. It provides examples of how we’ve been responsive to the public’s concerns, scrutinized the City’s spending of public dollars, tracked lobbyist influence, and revived forgotten parts of our City’s history. The examples also serve as a reminder of the profound human meaning our work can - and should - have.
Even though we are often immersed in regulations and data sets, we endeavor to center our work around the people whose lives are most affected by government policies and actions. To that end, I am committed in the coming year to devoting more resources and staff time to public engagement and outreach. Only an informed and engaged public can demand the government it deserves, and we are committed to doing our part by making our services more accessible and our work more relevant to all Portlanders.
Influences on City Government
- We publish the City Council’s legislative and business agendas and facilitate public testimony. Five slots are reserved each Wednesday for community members to speak to Council on any topic of their choosing. Community members are also empowered to move items from the consent agenda to the regular agenda, where broader discussion and public testimony can occur.
- We digitized historical City budgets and ordinances, transferring them from microfilm. Having budgets and ordinances easily accessible allows the public to learn about the City’s history and changing priorities. The public can access these and other public records online through Efiles.
- So that the public can evaluate the influence of lobbyists in the context of government decision-making, we track how much money lobbyists and lobbying organizations spend to influence City government. Last year, registered lobbyists invested more than $776,000 on lobbying activities.
- During an audit, we discovered the existence of a list police had created of “most active” gang members. The list enabled officers to give more scrutiny to people who appeared on it through detention and searches. We faulted the City in our report for not being transparent about how the list was created and used. Our follow-up confirmed that the City had discontinued the “most active gang member” list.
- We provided archival research assistance to artists-in-residence who created Blightxploitation, an art exhibit that used historical records and photographs to reveal how forfeiture and nuisance laws were weaponized against Portland’s Black community.
- We investigated multiple cases where the City had assessed substantial liens for Code violations on homeowners who were economically vulnerable, disabled, and/or elderly. We found such liens to be excessive and counterproductive.
The City agreed with our recommendation to reduce or eliminate the liens and work with homeowners to address and correct the violations.
- We see expanding mediation as a key method for resolving community-police conflicts, when both a complainant and an officer agree to it. Some conflicts may benefit from more informal, participant-driven options, including equity-informed mediation and restorative justice models.
- We audited how the City spends revenue collected from the voter-approved tax on recreational cannabis sales. The City promoted the tax as a source of funds that would benefit individuals and businesses owners who were adversely affected when cannabis was illegal. We found, however, that most of the taxes collected have been used for police and transportation programs.
We recommended ways the City can be more accountable and transparent regarding tax allocation decisions and results.
Housing and homelessness
- To ensure the public’s intentions were being achieved, we audited the City’s implementation of the voter-approved bond to borrow $258 million to invest in affordable housing. We found that the City was off to a solid start, establishing clear criteria for project selection and developing a new approach to target priority populations for the housing being created by the bond funds.
- We also investigated City actions that contribute to tenant displacement from affordable housing, including shutting off water when a landlord does not pay the bill, and forcibly vacating properties when the landlord fails to provide basic services, such as garbage removal. We advocated that the City use collection tools other than shutoffs and place properties into receivership, if necessary, to address substandard housing conditions.
- To evaluate the effectiveness of one of the City’s key responses to homelessness, we audited the City’s campsite cleanup program. We found that cleanups improved living conditions for people in and near campsites and observed crews engaging with people respectfully. People living in the camps wanted more information about when clean-ups would occur and were frustrated by difficulties getting their property back. Neighbors who filed complaints about camps also wanted timely communication from the City.
We also analyzed arrest data after seeing media reports that about half of all those arrested in Portland were people experiencing homelessness. Our findings showed that most arrests did not occur at homeless encampments and that 45 percent were prompted because of a community member’s call to 911. People living outside also reported feeling subjected to increased police scrutiny. Although more than half of homeless arrests resulted from an open warrant, we found that most were for low-level misdemeanor charges related to living outside, such as building a fire on public property.
We recommended the Police Bureau seek direction from City Council on its role in addressing homelessness and work with Multnomah County to minimize “failure to appear” warrants for minor offenses.
We audited the use of overtime, and found that in a one-year period the City had spent $15.7 million for police officers to work nearly 250,000 extra hours. Relying on overtime is costly and poses safety risks to officers and community members.
We recommended the City limit overtime and use data and timely reports to better manage staffing
We investigated a tip that the City-funded sobering station was an unsafe environment for patients and was charging the City for services it had not provided. In response to our investigation, the sobering station was permanently closed, and the City is looking at whether it is owed reimbursement for services not provided.
We worked with Don't Shoot PDX to archive its records. Don't Shoot PDX is a nonprofit organization established by a Black Lives Matter community activist. It engages in nonviolent direct action and education around police accountability.
We investigated concerns that a police lieutenant responsible for communicating with protesters improperly interacted with and favored members of an alt-right group. We determined that the lieutenant did not engage in misconduct but found that the City had not provided any training or guidance to help him perform the liaison role.
In response to the investigation, the Police Bureau introduced new training, uniforms, and operating procedures for liaisons.