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Auditor Debate at Our Revolution

First public debate on city auditor initiative leans toward petition
Chris Wig expressed concerns about the independent Auditor proposal. Photo: Ted Taylor
Chris Wig expressed concerns about the independent Auditor proposal. Photo: Ted Taylor

The first public debate on the proposal to establish an Office of Independent City Auditor did not go well for the opposition. 

On July 29, the “trans-partisan” political group Our Revolution Lane County heard arguments from chief petitioner Bonny Bettman McCornack and opponent Chris Wig, and at the end of the debate voted 36-5 to endorse the measure. Our Revolution is a local chapter of a national group that arose from the 2016 Bernie Sanders presidential campaign. 

Wig is chairman of the Democratic Party of Lane County, but represented himself as a “concerned citizen.” The DPLC has not yet taken a position on the proposal, which is now gathering signatures to go on the ballot next May.

Wig ran for Eugene City Council last year and says he supports independent auditing and may even end up campaigning for this measure. But he said he wants to hear first from a study group on the topic led by Mayor Lucy Vinis. “My concern at this juncture is that any endorsement for or against any specific proposal is premature,” he said. “I think this particular proposal has a lot of really good aspects in it, but it also raises some questions.”

He is concerned that no citizen review panel is required, the funding mechanism is “outside the normal budgeting process” and does not allow for flexibility, and the auditor’s subpoena power is “highly irregular.”

Auditors can use subpoenas to legally compel the release of information that is being withheld or delayed by agencies or officials.  

He also voiced concern that  the drafting of the measure was not done in public. “If key stakeholders and communities of interest had been involved, some of these concerns I have raised would have been addressed in the proposal and the proposal would be better for it,” Wig said.

McCornack said her group considered adding a citizen review panel, but decided that peer review, stringent federal Government Auditing Standards and open public access to the auditor’s work would provide adequate feedback. She said nothing in the measure prohibits a citizen review panel, and some auditors may prefer to have them. The measure could also be amended later by another public vote. 

McCornack, David Monk and former city councilor George Brown are chief petitioners in the effort to get an independent auditor; they have formed a group called City Accountability.

Regarding the fixed budget, McCornack said the auditor’s independence requires a predictable and adequate minimum budget not subject to the whims of changing administrations or councils, and the council can allocate extra funds for special projects.

The subpoena power may never be used, McCornack said. Retired Oregon state auditor Gary Blackmer told her, “Just knowing the auditor has it is enough to motivate cooperation.”

McCornack and others have pointed out that drafting this measure has been a public process in many ways. The City Council  Citizen Charter Review Committee  unanimously approved the idea of a performance auditor in 2002, but a series of city managers, mayors and conservative council members have kept it off the action agenda. 

Blackmer has advocated for an independent auditor numerous times in public talks in Eugene, and the topic has been discussed in many candidate debates and in op-eds and letters to the editor of local newspapers. Blackmer helped draft the technical aspects of this measure based on his many years as a city, county and state auditor. 

Update: We wrote that the Eugene City Council “unanimously approved the idea of a performance auditor” back in 2002, but that unanimous nod actually came from the council’s Citizen Charter Review Committee. Not all of the committee’s recommended charter amendments were referred to voters by the council. Also in the story, we should have mentioned the two abstentions in the Our Revolution vote, which was 36-5 to endorse the performance auditor petition currently being circulated.