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'Biased' Petition Language

Petitioners complain ballot language for city auditor is off base

Eugene residents who are seeking a ballot initiative to create an independent performance auditor for the city filed a petition with the Circuit Court May 17. They say the city’s proposed ballot language is “biased” and “fails to sufficiently, concisely or fairly describe the initiative.” 

The language was prepared by City Attorney Glenn Klein in the city manager’s office.

City Manager Jon Ruiz and conservative members of city government have long opposed such a charter amendment that would provide independent and professional evaluation of city management, department by department, with the purpose of improving management and accountability. 

Back in 2002, an ad hoc charter review committee unanimously called for the creation of an independent performance auditor to address long-standing management issues, excessive power by the city manager and eroded trust in city government. But a string of city managers and elected city leaders have kept the topic off the City Council agenda, saying such auditing is not needed and is too costly. 

Meanwhile, hundreds of cities and counties around the nation have found that independent auditors have more than paid for themselves financially and have kept small problems from growing into big problems, says petitioner Bonny Bettman McCornack.  

The 10-word-maximum ballot caption proposed by the city attorney for next May’s election reads: “Charter Amendment: elected city auditor independent of council/manager.” The question reads: “Shall Charter create elected auditor to audit city operations and activities without supervision or direction by City Council or manager?” 

The explanation section is longer and goes into some details of the amendment, but not all voters will take the time to read the summary explanation, which details the cost — less than .1 percent of the city’s budget and duties such as posting audit results publicly.  

In response, chief petitioners McCornack, George Brown and David Monk say the “caption and question fail to tell voters that the proposal both creates an office of an independent elected city auditor, and establishes its duties.” 

They add, “The summary omits significant detail about required qualifications, the duties of the office, and accountability provisions. In addition, aspects of how the amendment works are inaccurate.”

Citing state and city code requirements for fairness and accuracy, petitioners are calling on the court to improve the short caption to read: “Amends Charter: Establishes office, duties of independent city auditor.” And the revised question should change to: “Shall City Charter be amended to establish office of elected City Auditor to independently audit city operations and activities?”

The petitioners complain that the city attorney’s unnecessary language, “without supervision or direction by City Council or city manager,” implies that the auditor would have no accountability. 

In fact, the new auditor would work closely with city leaders to identify problem areas, follow professional protocols for auditing, and collaborate with city leaders on resolving problems and improving efficiencies. An anonymous hotline would be available for citizen whistle-blowers. All audit reports would be published on a website and audits would be subject to peer review.

Once the ballot title language is finalized and the city recorder approves signature sheets, petitioners can begin to collect the necessary 8,091 valid signatures to get the measure on the ballot.