Portland city audit: Promises made to voters, not all kept

Civic Affairs

Pot, arts, affordable housing, street repair are specific areas mentioned

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — When it comes to pot, arts, affordable housing and street repair, the Portland City Council made a lot of promises. But accountability for making sure those promises were kept often fell short.

That’s the gist of a new report released Tuesday by City Auditor Mary Hull Caballero. The report looked at 4 recent audits of spending approved by voters over the past few years:

Essentially, the auditor’s report states, ballot proposals in those 4 areas didn’t clearly think through the ability to deliver on the commitments proposed and the language put in front of voters wasn’t always clear.

Part of that problem is because of Portland’s form of government. Promises “can fall through the cracks” when leaders in the city bureaus change and there is “no central monitoring function” once voters OK a tax or bond.

The commission form of government, often referred to as the Galveston Plan, was first introduced in 1901 in Galveston, Texas. In this system, voters elect commissioners citywide rather than by district. Portland voters approved it in 1913 and still operates with six elected leaders for the City Council — the mayor and five commissioners.

Portland is the only major US city with this type of government. Even Galveston abandoned the commission in 1960. Seattle overwhelmingly voted to move away from it in 2013.

The report did find the City generally did what it was supposed to with taxes, such as fixing roads with the higher gas tax. But there were questions, for example, of how much went to certain programs — like the cannabis tax that is supposed to pay for drug and alcohol help, police and small businesses.

“We found drug and alcohol education was not funded in one year, and overall public safety and law enforcement got 80%,” said lead auditor Jenny Scott.

The audit said the voter’s expectation is that the money would be evenly divided.

There were also questions about the 10-cents-per-gallon gas tax approved by voters to help repair roads. Annual reports were late and the oversight committee was not given up-to-date information.

Caballero’s office had some recommendations:

  • The City Council should direct the various bureaus to accurately assess the “administrative burdens” in any accountability measures
  • Make realistic comments
  • Specify which body will be ultimately responsible for implementing the accountability commitments.

In a letter included with the Auditor’s report, the Portland City Council said the “three recommendations are thoughtful and well-reasoned.”

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