Dueling auditor measures debated

April 14, 2018

With a month remaining until the election, backers of the dueling city auditor measures faced off publicly for the first time Friday, disagreeing about every major part of the opposing measures as they attempted to sway voters to their side.

The debate before the City Club of Eugene included 15-minute opening statements by backers of each measure and a question-and-answer session.

Each measure would change the Eugene City Charter, the document that defines municipal government’s authority and functions. Measure 20-283, which a grass-roots group put on the ballot through a petition initiative, would establish an office for a city auditor elected by voters. Measure 20-287, proposed by another group and referred to the ballot by the City Council, would allow the council to hire an auditor who would be overseen by a council-appointed citizen review board.

Bonny Bettman McCornack, a key backer of Measure 20-283, said an elected auditor would be independent from city councilors and the city manager. An elected auditor would be free to identify problems and root out waste, she said.

Bettman said opponents of the measure most object to the independence.

“They don’t want an auditor unless they have complete control over the auditor’s activities, especially looking at the books,” she said.

Joshua Skov, who ran for City Council two years ago and backs competing Measure 20-287, told the City Club of Eugene that an elected auditor could be more political than an independent one.

Skov said an auditor operating without citizen oversight is a “fundamental undemocratic flaw” as he or she could operate and make decisions largely out of public view.

Bettman and Skov disagreed over the public cost for the competing measures.

Measure 20-283 establishes a budget for the elected auditor’s office of at least one-tenth of 1 percent of the city’s total budget, or $677,000 in the current budget year. Measure 20-287 sets a minimum budget of $250,000.

The auditor’s salary would be paid out of those budgets. Measure 20-283 requires the elected auditor’s salary to be the average of the salaries paid to the Eugene and Salem city managers and the Eugene Water & Electric Board’s general manager. City councilors would set the appointed auditior’s salary.

The $21,000-a-year raise EWEB recently awarded to General Manager Frank Lawson boosted the proposed elected auditor’s salary to $169,898, said backers of Measure 20-287, more than Oregon’s governor, secretary of state and Supreme Court justices. Skov called the pay “unreasonable” and “truly overpriced.”

Bettman countered that the proposed salary falls below Eugene’s city attorney and the county’s district attorney. Even if residents believe public officials are paid too much, she said, the elected auditor “still has to work on a level playing field with the officials whose programs and departments she or he will be auditing.”

The proposed appointed auditor’s budget “isn’t a genuine attempt to provide oversight, but the smaller price tag is good optics for their campaign,” Bettman said of opponents.

Municipal government could easily pay for the elected auditor’s expenses out of its existing budget, Bettman said, noting that the budget has money designated for city jobs that may be vacant.

Skov disagreed, saying the city’s operating budget is stretched thin.

“We don’t have a lot of fat to trim,” he said. “Trying to have a budget that is extravagant is bad strategy.”

Bettman and Skov also debated the importance of requiring a city auditor to live within Eugene. Measure 20-287 has such a requirement; Measure 20-283 does not.

Skov said the requirement, which applies to Eugene’s city manager and department directors, is beneficial and its absence in the competing measure “is just goofy.”

“It’s a commitment to the community,” he said. “You should be here to do those things.”

Bettman said having a city auditor who lives in Creswell or Springfield, as examples, provides a “healthy benefit” toward preserving objectivity. Living outside of Eugene means there’s less chance for the auditor to socialize with city employees whose department could be the subject of scrunity, she said.

Follow Christian Hill on Twitter @RGchill . Email christian.hill@registerguard.com .