Portland Auditor Mary Hull Caballero went before the City Council on Wednesday to explain why she wanted to expand an existing city rule that bars former elected officials, bureau directors and at-will staff of elected officials from returning to City Hall as lobbyists.
It didn't go well.
The auditor would like to extend the one-year ban to two years and make it apply to all topics, not just those on which a former official worked at City Hall.
This proposed change angered Mayor Charlie Hales—whose failure in 2014 to disclose the lobbying activity of his campaign consultant-turned-lobbyist for Uber served as the backdrop to the tense and at times uncomfortable debate.
In lengthy remarks that were at turns combative and defensive, Hales argued not just against the changes but against the existing city rules that date to 2005. (He said he favored sticking to the state's method of disclosure.)
Describing his former role working with cities to build streetcars, Hales said he witnessed self-dealing, conflicts of interest and "real corruption" elsewhere. Then he claimed that doesn't exist in Portland and Oregon.
"I can tell you about real government corruption," he told colleagues. "And it ain't here. It's not in Oregon and it's not in Portland. So I'm a little puzzled why the city even bothered to enact its own regulations, versus following the Oregon Government Ethics Commission program."
He added: "The heart of the matter is, 'What's the problem we're trying to solve?' Frankly, I don't see one."
Commissioner Dan Saltzman joined Hales in harshly criticizing the revolving-door proposal—and dressing down the auditor and her staffer.
"The 2005 law seems to be working very well," Saltzman said in one of his more measured moments.
"But we're being put in the position of being against ethics," Hales complained.
The video begins at the one-hour mark. Check it out, or read our excerpts from the conversation below.
Saltzman: "You're penalizing people who have been loyal, hardworking public servants by saying for two years you can't pursue any employment that is remotely related to City Hall."
Caballero: "That is not what it says."
Saltzman: "And secondly, you're going to make it difficult to hire good, inspired people who maybe hope to have careers either in the private sector or the public sector from ever wanting to work at City Hall."
Caballero: "I would respectively disagree with you, commissioner. What it prohibits is coming back to lobby. There's all kinds of employment possibilities for talented public servants when they want to leave public service."
Saltzman: "You ever heard the phrase 'Let Knowledge Serve the City'? It's PSU's motto. I think there's something to be said for Portland's quirky form of government, which is pretty unique. In my opinion, it's useful to have people who understand, who gained experience working in that system, help guide decision-making for the public, for their clients and those of us who serve in office."
Commissioner Amanda Fritz here says she doesn't have a problem with a two-year ban on elected officials or bureau directors but would like to see at-will staff exempted entirely. Hales soon jumps in saying he brings unique perspective to the topic because he served as a lobbyist from 1979 to 1991, first for the state lodging association and then for homebuilders.
Hales to Deborah Scroggin, the auditor's staffer who worked on the proposal: "Because of that experience, I have a context that frankly you don't have because I know I'm old enough that in 1979 you weren't doing this work. I don't see the problem we're trying to solve, but I see all kinds of side effects."
Hales then goes on to talk about ex-city officials who went on to do work that required seeking help from the city, including his former chief of staff Ron Paul. Paul, who died in December, had sought to create a James Beard Public Market in Portland for years. He argued that work like that would be stymied and it shouldn't be.
Hales: "The political culture in Oregon is honorable … What's on the books since 2005 hasn't made a difference."
Caballero's proposal also would increase penalties on lobbyists and city officials who violate Portland's 2005 lobbying rules and require more lobbyists to report their activity.