The Multnomah County Charter Review Committee met for the 15th and final time July 20 and agreed to a compromise in a dispute between Auditor Jennifer McGuirk and two of her fellow elected officials, Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury and Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson.
In its final meeting, the committee considered a slate of six changes to the charter, in addition to those it had already agreed on (making charter language gender neutral and extending voting rights to undocumented county residents).
The proposed changes: ranked-choice voting by 2026; language that explicitly requires the auditor’s timely access to records, information and materials for audits; establishing an ombuds office in the auditor’s office; citizen inspection of jails; updating the charter review process; and putting a waste, fraud and abuse hotline in the charter.
McGuirk wants to cement her office’s watchdog role at a time when the county’s budget—$3.32 billion next year—is larger than ever and flush with new funds from the 10-year, $2.5 billion Metro homeless services measure.
In recent years, McGuirk say her office’s access to Multnomah County Animal Services declined after the office issued a scathing audit in 2016. And last year she went public with concerns that the Joint Office of Homeless Services was slow-playing requests for data for an audit of that office.
There was no pushback at the final charter review meeting to McGuirk’s request for timely access to information in the future. But in letters they submitted for public comment prior to the July 20 meeting, both Kafoury and Vega Pederson opposed writing the ombuds office and the hotline into the charter.
“Inserting the Ombuds Office and Good Government Hotline into the charter risks tying the County’s hands when it needs to make necessary and timely adjustments to ensure the effectiveness and responsiveness of those programs,” Kafoury wrote.
“If these functions were affixed to the Charter, neither the auditor or the Board of County Commissioners would be able to address program or service delivery redundancies in an effective or efficient manner to better meet the needs of residents and employees.”
Vega Pederson expressed similar reservations. “I strongly support the Good Governance Hotline and the creation of an ombuds office, but do not believe inserting them in the county charter is prudent or responsible over the long term,” Vega Pederson wrote. “Including things in the charter can unintentionally tie the hands of future board members and make needed changes or modifications difficult and time consuming.”
The Charter Review Committee divided the baby, agreeing with McGuirk that the ombuds position should be in the charter but acceding to Kafoury and Vega Pederson’s wish that the hotline remain in county code.
McGuirk, who is independently elected, says she’s disappointed and fears writing the hotline into the code may not provide sufficient accountability.
“I feel like the hotline should be in charter to be in alignment with best practices in state law and so that the public will be able learn about substantiated investigations,” McGuirk says.
Kafoury insists she and the auditor want the same thing. “We share a common goal in supporting our County’s Good Government Hotline,” Kafoury said. “I am committed to following the committee’s recommendation by ensuring the Board of Commissioners puts the hotline into County code.”
McGuirk hopes to work with county officials to make the hotline effective. “I hope that faithfulness to that state law and to the hotline’s existing practices will be clear in the draft code that the County Attorney will develop, so that I can support it,” she says.
The package of proposed charter amendments now goes to the county board of commissioners for approval.