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The City of Portland, Oregon

Auditor Simone Rede

Promoting open and accountable government

City should deliver on accountability promises to voters

Have you ever wondered if promises made to voters are delivered when a program funded by them is up and running? It's an important question, and we have some answers.

City Council in recent years asked voters to approve taxes and bonds to pay expenses related to arts education, cannabis regulation, affordable housing, and street repair. Each time the City asked voters to approve more revenue, it promised certain steps would be taken to ensure the funds were spent as intended.

Over the course of four audits of voter-approved spending, we noticed a trend that the City was not meeting its accountability promises, even when the use of the funding generally met expectations. Some examples:

• Clear language: The City committed to use revenue from a cannabis tax to fund drug and alcohol treatment, public safety, and small business support. Nearly 80 percent of the revenue went to public safety, and in one year, drug and alcohol treatment received no funds.

• Oversight committees: The City promised voters that a committee would be convened to monitor gas-tax spending, but did not give the group current, consistent, and accurate information from which to provide meaningful oversight.

• Annual reports: The City promised annual public reports, which implies the release of a report each year. There was no report for cannabis, and those for the housing bond and gas tax were late.

• Annual audits: Despite its promises, the City only delivered a review of the housing bond.

• Administrative caps: After voters approved the arts tax, the City declared the promised cap on administrative expenses was unrealistic, and City Council repealed it.    

The latest audit recommends that before measures are referred to the ballot, City Council should ensure that accountability promises are specific, feasible, measurable, and achievable. It should also specify a position or body responsible for making sure they are implemented.

Find the full report here and a one-page summary here.

--Performance Auditor III Jenny Scott

View the four recent audits referred to in the report:

Arts Tax: Promises to voters only partly fulfilled (July 2015)

Recreational Cannabis Tax: Greater transparency and accountability needed (May 2019)

Fixing Our Streets: Some accountability commitments not fulled (May 2019)

Portland Housing Bond: Early implementation results mostly encouraging (June 2019)