Committee Tasked With Advising Multnomah County Board on Budget Priorities Placed on Pause for Rest of Fiscal Year

The county auditor says county code mandates that the committee meet.

New Multnomah County Chair Jessica Vega Pederson has arrived in office with the promise of increasing transparency in how the county spends its money on the most pressing issues in Portland.

But an independent committee tasked with making recommendations to the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners about how it uses its $3.3 billion annual budget has not met and will not meet for the rest of the 2022-23 fiscal year.

The Central Community Budget Advisory Committee comprises one delegate each from 10 oversight committees that study the budgets of particular county offices and programs. But this year, no such central committee will convene or produce a report to the county chair. (The actual impact, if any, the committee has on budget decisions is unclear.)

County spokeswoman Julie Sullivan-Springhetti says the committee was dissolved last year by former Chair Deborah Kafoury, and the county is reviewing the role of the central committee.

“The county paused that subset committee after the previous Central CBAC members raised questions last budget cycle about how they could work more effectively,” Sullivan-Springhetti says. “The process has been slowed by staff vacancies in the Office of Community Involvement.” (The budget committees receive logistical support from OCI. Pederson appointed longtime community advocate and nonprofit leader JR Lily as the new director of the office last month.)

Multnomah County Auditor Jennifer McGuirk says it’s her understanding that county code requires the committee to convene.

“The way I read the code about [the central committee] is that the committee should be meeting,” says McGuirk, who’s in the midst of an audit of the county’s budget process. “They should be aware of what’s in code. And I suggest as homework that they get comfortable with the nuances of code.”

Sullivan-Springhetti said in response that, as the county’s chief executive, “the chair does have an inherent authority and obligation to assure stewardship of public funds, ensure efficiency of resources and not waste the time of our valuable volunteers.”

Vega Pederson said in a statement that it’s her “intention to have a Central CBAC seated for our 2024 budget decisions.”

The chair of the community budget committee for the Joint Office of Homeless Services, Daniel Vogel, went ahead with scheduling the central committee meeting anyway. He booked a room at the Hollywood branch of the Multnomah County Library on Wednesday evening. Only two people showed up; one of them was County Commissioner Sharon Meieran.

“As far as I’ve been told, I’m the only member of this committee. For the past month, I’ve been seeking answers from county officials about what it means for our committee to be on pause,” Vogel said to a near-empty room. “I have yet to receive an explanation. [We] will continue to act in accordance with county code.”

Meieran responded: “This is all a surprise to me. The Central CBAC is arguably the most important of all of our community engagement budget advisory committees....I find it to be shocking and unacceptable. This goes against county code. It goes against government transparency and accountability.”

According to Section 3.306 of county code, appointments to the central committee are annual. No exceptions appear to be laid out in the code language permitting pauses.

The central committee produced no report the board of commissioners in 2021, citing COVID-19. In its last report of April 2022, the central committee said it had focused on “understanding progress on the recent voter-approved ballot measures due to their role in addressing critical public priorities.”

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