Murmurs: County Auditor Throws Down

In other news: Rubio and Gonzalez spar over Clean Energy Fund.

Ron and Sarah Henne. (Nigel Jaquiss)

COUNTY AUDITOR THROWS DOWN: At the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners meeting April 4, County Auditor Jennifer McGuirk will call an uncomfortable question. McGuirk, who is independently elected, objects to a provision in county code that would allow Chair Jessica Vega Pederson to appoint an independent contractor to audit the Preschool for All program. As a commissioner, Vega Pederson was the architect of that program, which, as WW has reported, raised far more money than voters were led to expect, but served fewer new students and created fewer new programs than projected (“The Itsy Bitsy Project,” Nov. 8, 2023). “I am asking the Board to remove this language because it isn’t needed,” McGuirk explained in a March 29 newsletter. “The County Charter already requires the County Auditor to conduct performance audits of all county operations and financial affairs, which includes Preschool For All.” Vega Pederson responds: “Preschool for All is an opportunity for every 3- and 4-year-old in Multnomah County to experience a joyful, quality preschool experience. Our commitment to voters is that this program will have the oversight and accountability to achieve that goal. That’s a goal the auditor and I share.”

RUBIO AND GONZALEZ SPAR OVER CLEAN ENERGY FUND: In a meeting of the Portland City Council’s chiefs of staff on March 21, Shah Smith, who serves as chief to Commissioner Rene Gonzalez, asked to schedule a public work session on the future of the Portland Clean Energy Fund. That tax on large retailers, intended to fund climate-preparedness infrastructure, is flush with cash and overseen by Commissioner Carmen Rubio. Absent from that meeting, however, was Rubio’s chief of staff. Council etiquette calls for the commissioner in charge of a program to schedule a work session. When Smith followed up with his fellow chiefs that day in an email with potential dates, three offices—not including Rubio’s—took issue with his request because Rubio’s office wasn’t present for the discussion. In a statement, Rubio says Smith’s attempt to schedule a work session without Rubio’s office on board was sneaky. Rubio said: “I can only conclude that this was by design. Commissioner Gonzalez, my other colleagues and every other person I’ve worked with throughout my career knows that I take a collaborative approach to tough issues.…And given that has always been my approach, it will continue.” Gonzalez, the most conservative member of the council, has said for the past several months that he’d like to take PCEF back to voters for major changes, an idea reviled by progressives who championed the tax six years ago. Gonzalez and Rubio are, not coincidentally, the two leading candidates for Portland mayor.

STOLEN HOME INVESTIGATION WIDENS: Last week, WW reported on the apparently fraudulent documentation used by a scammer under the name Silvestre Garcia to steal a home in St. Johns. Garcia apparently forged the signature of the homeowner, Ron Henne, as well as the John Hancock of the notary public who’d witnessed Henne sign in 2010 when he inherited the home from his late mother and transferred it to his name. (“A Friend in Deed,” WW, March 27). After that story ran, a criminal investigator for Arizona Attorney General Kris Mayes contacted Multnomah County officials. “An investigator for a title company sent me the March 27, 2024, article in Willamette Week regarding the deed fraud case for Mr. Henne’s home,” investigator Don Carroll wrote in a March 29 email. “I believe that the suspect in the case is also involved in the cases I am working in Arizona. Please let me know who I can speak to at Portland PD or Oregon DOJ regarding the case.” Ron Henne held on to his house, thanks to the eagle eyes of his Portland neighbors, who alerted police. The investigation into Garcia is ongoing.

LEADERSHIP SHAKE-UP HITS STATE BEHAVIORAL HEALTH DIVISION: Ebony Clarke, a little over a year into her tenure as the state’s director of behavioral health, announced a shake-up in her office at this week’s meeting of the Oregon Health Policy Board. Clarke said the Oregon Health Authority, which the board oversees, brought in a consulting firm to “do an organizational assessment to really help us understand what the strengths and weaknesses were.” (OHA has signed and extended a long-standing, $21.5 million consulting contract with Deloitte to audit behavioral health and other services.) “How do we make sure that we’re not doing this work in silos?” Clarke asked. The answer: eliminate OHA’s umbrella Health Systems Division and elevate a new Behavioral Health Division and Medicaid Division. The result: Clarke at Behavioral Health will now oversee three deputy directors. No one was fired, and the changes went into effect April 1. Meanwhile, OHA is working to fill six top leadership positions, including chief medical officer and chief financial officer, which have so far been filled by interim executives. “It’s a lot of recruitments—and a lot of work,” Sejal Hathi, OHA’s newly appointed director, told members of the policy board. She highlighted one of the open positions: dental director for the Oregon Health Plan. “If you know any stellar dentists, please do send them our way.”

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