There are a ton of candidates for various auditor positions on the primary ballot:
- Brian Evans — Brian Evans has served as Metro Auditor since his election in 2014. He joined the Metro Auditor’s office as an employee in 2008. Evans is running unopposed and does not appear to have a campaign website.
- Jennifer McGuirk — Jennifer McGuirk is the Multnomah County Auditor and was elected in 2019. She joined the Multnomah County Auditor’s office as an employee in 2013. McGuirk is running unopposed.
- Kristine Adams-Wannberg — Kristine Adams-Wannberg works for Washington County as a principal management auditor. She’s also a past president of the Association of Local Government Auditors and has volunteered on audit committees for the City of Hillsboro, Metro, Portland Community College, and Oregon Department of Revenue.
- John Hutzler — John Hutzler is seeking a fourth term as Washington County’s auditor. He’s also been a school teacher, an attorney, and a consultant.
City of Portland
- Simone Rede — Simone Rede is employed by Metro as a principal management auditor. She has over 15 years of experience in public service, focused on conducting performance audits.
- Brian Setzler — Brian Setzler is a certified public accountant who works with businesses he describes as ‘sustainable.’
Admittedly, even with all these candidates, there’s only a few decisions to make. Races for auditors’ seats are rarely contested. This year is a bit of an outlier, with two contested races — the City of Portland and Washington County both have multiple candidates on the May ballot. The last contested race for City of Portland auditor was in 1986 and the last contested race for Washington County auditor was in 2010.
This article goes through what auditors do at different levels of government, how independent an auditor can actually be, and what characteristics make for a great auditor (at least at election time). Spoilers:
- auditors do a lot of auditing, but also other work
- auditor independence is tricky
- good auditors value transparency, are respected by their peers, hold themselves accountable, and have experience with both performance and management audits
So what does an auditor do?
Each position has its own nuances — the City Auditor in Portland’s work includes a few responsibilities that the Metro Auditor doesn’t face. But, overall, elected auditors are in charge of accountability for their level of government. Their responsibilities include:
- reviewing how well programs and agencies perform
- determining the impact of projects
- assessing risks for the future performance of the government in question
An audit may also look at specific concerns, such as whether certain strategies are empowering an agency to meet its diversity and inclusion goals.
While most of us associate auditors with the IRS or with accounting, internal government audits are different. Financial accountability is a priority, but an elected auditor does little financial analysis. Many municipal governments even outsource financial reviews so that internal staff can focus on performance and management audits, along with specialized analysis.
Elected auditors set a calendar of planned projects well in advance, often published for public review. Creating that calendar is a key power of the office — by choosing what to review, an auditor can move an issue into the public’s view and on to the agenda of other elected officials. They might prioritize an audit due to requests from relevant officials, public input, and risk assessment matrices (which may not be public).
The process of conducting an audit is generally lengthy, spanning at least several months. A government auditor will typically notify the subject of an audit in advance. They’ll also request that people working on relevant projects provide documents and other information as requested. An audit can include:
- research into applicable regulations and best practices
- interviews of clients, staff, administrators, and other stakeholders
- data collection and analysis
- observations of work in action
The auditor is responsible for preparing a report after an audit is complete. It can include recommendations for improvements or areas of concern. Depending on the auditor’s priorities, or those of successive auditors, they may do follow up reports .
So what happens when an auditor finds a problem? There’s typically a set process for informing the appropriate local government executives and agencies, with an official letter that’s shared with members of local media. That letter may include specific concerns, suggested solutions, and detailed explanations.
Audits can also snowball. If an auditor finds a problem with one program at a specific agency, the next step may be a larger audit of the entire agency. Last year, McGuirk started an audit of the Joint Office of Homeless Services’ performance and wound up ending the audit early after finding that JOHS’ data was unreliable. McGuirk then started a new audit, focused on JOHS’ information system. She’s suggested her office may return to the performance audit after higher quality data is available.
Additional responsibilities usually focus on other ways to ensure government accountability. Some auditors’ offices maintain hotlines for reporting fraud or wasteful spending. They may handle informing community members about audit results, either through the media or through outreach efforts. Local government auditors also report to the state government on a yearly basis. Depending on the type of local government, auditors may need to complete and submit financial reports, audit reports, and even plans of action.
Not all governments elect auditors. In Clackamas County, the position of the County Internal Auditor is an appointed office. The Clackamas County Commission made Jodi Cochran county auditor in 2019. The position is part of the Clackamas County Treasurer’s office and funded through that office’s budget. Cochran’s work is overseen by an Internal Audit Oversight Committee. The IAOC’s membership includes the Clackamas County board of commissioners chair and vice-chair, as well as the county’s attorney and administrator. Three volunteers from the community also are part of the oversight committee.
There are other options, as well. Statewide audits go through the office of the Oregon Secretary of State. While we don’t exactly elect a state auditor, the state constitution empowers the Secretary of State as the chief auditor for Oregon. So while the office has other responsibilities, voters do have some say in who handles state audits. As chief auditor, the Secretary of State also oversees auditors working for local governments throughout Oregon and certifies their compliance with state audit laws.
An auditor’s powers and responsibilities
Obviously, an auditor’s office handles conducting audits. In addition to conducting audits, an auditor’s office may be assigned other duties. The City Auditor for Portland is responsible for running city elections, tracking lobbying, and (for the moment) operating a police accountability body. Most of the other elected auditors around the Portland area have less on their plates, though they may still be called upon during redistricting processes or other projects where having an independent review is useful.
But while audits are intended to find problems, auditors often have little power to address those problems. Consider the 2020 mayoral election in Portland: When Hull Caballero ruled that Ted Wheeler’s reelection campaign had received donations over the voter-approved limit, she fined the campaign $8,700. The Wheeler campaign filed a lawsuit against Hull Caballero, demanding that she revoke her decision and pay Wheeler’s legal fees. The City Auditor is required to request that a member of the City Attorney’s office represent her in court. The City Attorney, Tracy Reeve, refused to do so and advised that Hull Caballero should find other legal representation. The mayor oversees Reeve’s office, which would be a conflict of interest. Hull Caballero took the matter to the city council because she didn’t have enough budget for outside counsel with the same level of expertise in campaign finance as the City Attorney. The city council refused to instruct Reeve to take the case and, in fact, rebuked Hull Caballero for asking. Hull Caballero was left without the resources to enforce a ruling, which arguably led to Wheeler’s reelection. Getting other elected officials to take action on suggestions from an audit can be even harder.
Multiple candidates in this election cycle have pointed to homelessness as a key issue. But what can an auditor actually do to address homelessness after they’re elected? Well, the short answer is that they can do audits. So far, that’s mostly meant looking at how money is used (like the funds from the 2016 City of Portland Housing Bond or the 2020 Metro Supportive Housing Services Tax) or the performance of specific programs (like the Joint Office of Homeless Services). There are certainly more audits that could be useful, such as looking deeper into the impacts of local policing efforts on housing and analyzing if that money could be better spent. There are also other strategies: during audits, there are ways to improve the quality of data and analysis. For instance, a good auditor can ensure that more perspectives are heard. Especially when considering issues like homelessness, auditors have a responsibility to include evaluations from people receiving services from the organization being audited.
An elected auditor gets to set the approach their staff takes to audits. Tools like equity lenses and trauma-informed approaches are necessary to not only find the most useful information for assessing a program’s success, but also to auditing without creating any new harm. They’re relatively new. Even progressive auditors’ offices haven’t put as much money or time into training with these tools as they need to. Auditors’ offices do have a small advantage in that they can often adopt these techniques faster than agencies that require buy-in from multiple elected officials.
Are auditors truly independent?
Calculating an auditor’s power is really a question of their independence. When an audit highlights an issue, the best outcome is that the relevant executive group accepts that report and immediately take any recommended actions. That does happen, although generally only on issues that aren’t controversial. That happened in the 2020 Metro audit on their housing bond: Evans raised issues during the audit, which the Metro Council agreed with, and suggested changes, which the council adopted. Even then, though, implementing changes requires buy-in from administrative staff. After the Metro housing bond audit, senior administrators at Metro published a response objecting to several of Evans’ conclusions. An audit with no objections from any stakeholders is rare.
The result is that an auditor is often only as independent as they’re willing to be. An auditor can push back to maintain or grow independence. Few auditors are willing to oppose officials who could cut their budget. There are some auditors willing to take on other branches of government, though.
Hull Caballero has pushed for more autonomy for the City Auditor’s office since at least 2016. Portland’s city council sets the budget for the auditor’s office. City commissioners directly lead city bureaus in our current form of government which makes conducting audits of any city bureaus awkward. Furthermore, all hiring and procurement for the City Auditor’s office goes through the City’s Office of Management and Finance, which is one of the city bureaus that they must audit regularly. Hull Caballero wants more independence for the office, including the ability to hire staff without going through the Office of Management and Finance. Past auditors have also complained that the city council routinely shuts the auditor’s office out of budget processes, expecting the auditor’s office to take its assigned budget without complaint. Hull Caballero’s efforts have significant opposition from the city council.
Portland’s city council also assigns responsibilities to the auditor’s office, often without funding that work. That reduces the auditor’s capacity to conduct audits. Currently, the office handles police oversight through the Independent Police Review and newer efforts. However, Hull Caballero informed both the city council and the U.S. Department of Justice she will force the council to assume control of IPR starting July 1, 2022. Hull Caballero raised many concerns about IPR’s ability to provide oversight for the Portland Police Bureau in the past. In 2015, she highlighted intimidation and harassment IPR investigators experienced from former PPB Chief Mike Reese and former Portland Police Association President Daryl Turner. Hull Caballero further alleged that then Mayor Charlie Hales ignored her concerns. Portland residents have long seen IPR as ineffective at investigating police misconduct. That perspective was reinforced by IPR’s failure to hold police accountable for violence towards protesters in 2020.
Auditors provide oversight, but they’re also subject to oversight themselves. Advisory committees, usually made up of volunteers from the community, are a common form of oversight. Auditors may also work with committees for specific types of audit. For instance, Multnomah County operates an audit committee responsible for overseeing its annual financial reporting process and ensuring the auditor’s independence throughout the process.
Wondering which local auditor has the least independence? Clackamas County’s auditor is the obvious answer. The Clackamas County Treasurer is responsible for their budget and members of the county commission sit on the Internal Audit Oversight Committee. The auditor’s office likely can’t produce a report that upsets the various officials governing Clackamas County. Hilariously, Clackamas County’s IAOC is responsible for ensuring “the Office of County Internal Audit is independent and promotes the effectiveness and integrity of the office.”
While an elected auditor has more independence than an appointed auditor, most auditor races are very quiet. A county or Metro auditor can get elected without setting up a website, doing interviews with media, or raising enough money to be worth reporting to election officials. These races rarely have more than one candidate. The lack of attention can make an auditor more independent, but it can also reduce accountability.
What makes a great auditor?
For those of use who aren’t auditors, deciding which candidates will do a good job in one of the various auditors’ offices is tricky. Most auditors must qualify to run for office by completing some sort of accreditation. In the City of Portland, for instance, a candidate for auditor must be a Certified Public Accountant, a Certified Internal Auditor, or a Certified Management Accountant. While CPAs may be eligible to run for auditor seats, the work of an auditor differs from that of an accountant. In fact, local governments will hand off financial audits to outside contractors so in-house auditors can focus on performance and management audits. CPAs need to have significant experience with audits, beyond just checking financials and making sure everything adds up, to be good candidates for auditor.
One strategy is to look at how outside auditors judge incumbents, as well as the candidates. An endorsement from another elected auditor can be a good sign, as can accolades from a professional association.
Under Evans, the Metro Auditor’s office won awards for the quality of their performance audits from a professional organization for auditors working in local governments. (Rede worked on this audit as part of her work with Metro.) The same organization conducts peer reviews of auditors. They’ve found the Metro Auditor’s office to be in compliance with government auditing standards and even noted the office excelled in its communications system, quality control system, and independent review process.
High turnover in an auditor’s office is a warning sign. Hutzler has faced multiple investigations due to his mistreatment of staff. Since he took office after the 2010 election, he’s had seven employees in his office — five of whom have transferred out of his supervision and alleged that he’s created a hostile work environment. Even under the best of circumstances, that sort of turnover makes completing months-long audits hard. Washington County’s audit office doesn’t sound like it’s operating under the best of circumstances, though. Staff concerns include changes Huntzler makes mid-audit, ways he fails to meet accepted standards, and a habit Huntzler has of deciding what an audit will say before gathering any evidence.
While auditors are typically non-partisan, their biases can impact the work they do. If, for instance, an auditor needed to review an agency’s support services for people without housing, that auditor’s opinion on what support should be offered could impact the audit:
- an adversarial auditor looking for excuses to provide fewer services could focus an audit on failures, rather than also looking at successes
- an auditor unable to empathize with people from different backgrounds could discount their responses to audit questions, or even fail to survey service recipients as part of their audit
- an auditor can make recommendations and push for changes in the name of transparency and efficiency, picking and choosing solutions that move the agency more in line with the auditor’s beliefs
There are professional standards in place to reduce risks, as well community and institutional oversight at each level of government. However, elections are the largest piece of the auditor oversight puzzle. In the current election, we’re seeing this issue play out. Multiple auditors are campaigning with promises to provide accountability around the various responses to the housing crisis from every level of local government. Community members have voiced concerns that one candidate’s perspectives will bias audits he conducts. Prior to launching his campaign, Setzler tweeted multiple times about poverty and homelessness. Those tweets have since been deleted, but screen caps show a personal philosophy on poverty focused heavily on population reduction and a lack of understanding about the consequences of that focus. Given that Setzler deleted the tweets and shared very little campaign content about homelessness, it’s difficult to assess what Setzler would actually do during an audit related to the Portland housing crisis. Setzler does have a polished statement on his campaign website, which he recaps in interviews. But he’s admitted that he doesn’t write or even review all the material on his website.
Another key factor is the auditor’s own accountability. Everyone makes mistakes, but responding to issues in a transparent way is crucial when working in a position devoted to accountability.
Hutzler misattributed two testimonials, both on his website and in the Washington County Voters’ Pamphlet. The testimonials came from a letter to the editor that appeared on two Pamplin Media sites, The Beaverton Valley Times and The Hillsboro News-Times. Hutzler attributed the testimonials to the publications, rather than the letter’s writer, which created the impression that the two publications endorsed him, which they did not. The editor-in-chief of both publications, Mark Miller tweeted that neither paper was endorsing Hutzler. Hutzler kept the quotes on his campaign site, though he’s changed the attribution. The quotes remain in the Washington County Voters’ Pamphlet. He’s also blamed the instructions for the Washington County Voters’ Pamphlet for the error (although the testimonials were on his website, which presumably was created without referring to the pamphlet submission instructions).
In comparison, when Rede’s campaign discovered that they’d failed to report contributions to the state in a timely manner, despite reporting the same transactions to the city on time, Rede quickly took action. She corrected the error to the satisfaction of the Oregon Elections Division, ensured that the error wouldn’t happen again by adding a professional treasurer to her campaign staff, spoke openly to journalists about the process, and made plans to double check reports herself.
Ultimately, voters should be looking for signs that a candidate is
- experienced specifically with performance and management audits
- respected by their peers and coworkers
- effectively communicates about complex subjects
- transparent and accountable for their own work
Auditor candidates with those characteristics are the most likely to be effective auditors, no matter what level of government they’re working on or what audits they choose to conduct. Those are also the characteristics I looked for when writing a voter’s guide for the May ballot. I’ve included my recommendations below, as well as gone a bit more in-depth.
Recommendations for the May ballot
Metro — Brian Evans
Brian Evans has served as Metro Auditor since his election in 2014. He joined the Metro Auditor’s office as an employee in 2008. Evans is running unopposed and does not appear to have a campaign website.
Multnomah County — Jennifer McGuirk
Jennifer McGuirk has served as Multnomah County Auditor since 2019. She joined the Multnomah County Auditor’s office as an employee in 2013. During her first term, McGuirk conducted the first ever audit of county jail conditions. McGuirk is running unopposed.
Washington County Auditor — Kristine Adams-Wannberg
Adams-Wannberg already works as a principal management auditor in the Washington County Auditor’s Office and she’s ready to lead the team. Washington County is lucky to have her experience — and willingness to work on audits for other organizations. Adams-Wannberg volunteers as a member of audit committees for the City of Hillsboro, Metro, Portland Community College, and the Oregon Department of Revenue, giving her knowledge about how the county fits into the bigger picture. She also shares her knowledge with other auditors.
City of Portland Auditor — Simone Rede
Rede is an experienced auditor who understands the nuances of how performance audits can improve equity. She’s conducted audits on everything from child care in Oregon to the Oregon Zoo. Rede is also campaigning on making the Portland auditor’s office more transparent, a crucial move considering the office has oversight of city elections, campaign finances, police accountability, and a variety of other responsibilities beyond just conducting audits.