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Eugene Weekly : News : 11.22.06

Oversight Struggle

Many police review issues unresolved

BY ALAN PITTMAN

A year after Eugene citizens voted for a new police auditor and review board, the city is still struggling to put the oversight function in place.

The thorny issue of who will supervise the auditor's staff remains unresolved, at least in the minds of the city manager, city attorney and two councilors. Councilors, the manager and the attorney debated the issue again at a meeting last week.

Over City Manager Dennis Taylor's objection, the council voted 7-1 in August to keep the auditor function independent by giving her "exclusive" authority to hire and supervise her staff. On Nov. 17 the council reaffirmed that decision by a 6-2 vote, with Taylor and his city attorney still opposed.

Taylor recommended that the council change the auditor function to give him control over the auditor's staff.

City attorney Jerry Lidz, who was hired by the city manager, reiterated the claim that the city charter requires such control, even with the charter vote for an independent auditor function. "Our opinion hasn't changed."

"I'm still concerned about the legality of the whole thing," said Councilor Gary Papé.

Councilor Jennifer Solomon this time voted with Papé against an independent auditor staff. Solomon urged the manager and city attorney to write a memo describing any personal liability other councilors may have for opposing the manager's position.

Other councilors said losing councilors should move beyond the staffing issue. Some voters are frustrated the auditor/board is taking so long, Councilor Bettman said. "The voters expect us to move forward. The voters approved this overwhelmingly."

Many other thorny and important issues concerning the auditor also remain to be worked out, including:

• Will the auditor/review board be toothless? The draft ordinance creating the function describes the goal as increasing "public confidence" rather than accountability. Under the ordinance the auditor/board is advisory only, and advises only on whether there was officer wrongdoing, not on the level of discipline.

• How will the auditor/review board act to restore public trust if it's so secretive? The implementing ordinance emphasizes maximum allowable secrecy in the review process with secret meetings, names withheld and possible confidentiality agreements by board members.

• How will the auditor/board maintain its independence? Under the draft framework, independent review must still comply with the police and city manager's confidentiality policies and with confidentiality requirements the police union and manager have or will agree to in labor contracts. Both the manager and union previously opposed independent police review. The framework also requires the auditor to "confer" with police on investigations rather than independently and publicly reviewing them after they're finished.

• Is the auditor the boss of the review board, vice versa or neither? Can the council direct the board/auditor on specific cases? Similar vague lines of authority led to conflict in Portland over their auditor/review board system.

Other smaller unresolved issues include the role of the mayor in selecting review board members and voting on auditor/board issues, overlap with the existing Police Commission and how the oversight function will maintain adequate funding.

On Nov. 17 the council held its first meeting with the police auditor it hired last month, Cristina Beamud.

Beamud told the council "the most important issue" they need to resolve is the degree of "deference" she should pay to the city manager and police chief in setting up the oversight system.

She recommended that the council tweak the oversight ordinance to allow more timely investigations. She said she should be able to investigate misconduct before a criminal investigation is complete, unless the district attorney objects in writing.

Delaying a disciplinary investigation in a criminal case can too often amount to "paid vacation" for those accused of serious wrongdoing, she said. For the public, "if we delay a long time the dissatisfaction will fester."

She also recommended that the auditor/review board be able to take complaints longer than six months after an incident if there is good cause for the delay, such as intimidation of the victim.

Beamud has a law degree and experience working as a legal advisor to the Cambridge, Mass., Police Department, as an assistant district attorney, and as a patrol officer and criminal and internal affairs investigator for the Rochester, N.Y., police department, and she is fluent in Spanish, according to her resume.

"She has a pretty impressive background," City Manager Taylor wrote in an email. "I look forward to working with her."

Beamud told the council she expects to have the auditor's office up and running by Jan. 15.