LaVonne Griffin-Valade doesn’t mince her words.
Nor would she. As a former elementary school teacher and aspiring fiction writer, she values the precision of perfect grammar. As the city’s auditor, she values the ability of a well-written, researched — and sometimes, snappy-sounding — report to change, in some way, how the city functions.
As auditor, Griffin-Valade is in charge of overseeing how the auditor’s office investigates and conducts reviews of the functionality of various city programs — everything from the city’s streetcars to entire bureaus, to the stability of the city’s finances. She became the city’s auditor in 2009, when then-Auditor Gary Blackmer left the position to become director of the state’s audit division. She came to the city after serving as Multnomah County’s auditor since 2006.
She’s developed a reputation for not sugarcoating: audits on the city’s long-term financial stability, quality of its infrastructure, overtime pay, government transparency and police accountability can be described as nothing less than blistering. They’ve called into question how well Portland actually works, and created tension between her office and members of Portland’s City Council, particularly Mayor Charlie Hales.
Griffin-Valade announced late last year that she will retire at the end of 2014. Her lasting legacy will likely be changes to the Independent Police Review and oversight of Portland’s Police Bureau that have happened under her watch and in response to the Department of Justice’s findings that Portland’s police use excessive force against the mentally ill. The attention directed at the police specifically signaled to Griffin-Valade as she was coming into office that the topic would consume much of her time as auditor, and present challenges an auditor might not otherwise face.
Between that and interacting with Portland’s City Council — a group of people known for strong personalities and a fair heaping of drama — she learned early on that the city of Portland needs a strong auditor.
When Street Roots spoke to Griffin-Valade, she was in the midst of editing an audit of Portland’s streetcar services, which is soon to be released.
Amanda Waldroupe: What are some of the core values or beliefs that inform your job on a day-to-day basis?
LaVonne Griffin-Valade: The thrust of my work involves neutrality, independence, impartiality, transparency, and holding accountable myself, the folks who work for me, and for the government I’m auditing and providing some oversight function. I think what has driven me essentially in every professional endeavor I’ve been involved in is a search for justice and fairness. That’s a value I’ve always had. That can involve wonky things like spending taxpayer dollars appropriately to ensure that we’re able to provide the services the public expects of us. Historically, that’s been a tenet that has driven a lot of change in the United States. I believe very strongly in creating a voice for the public. I’m also very pragmatic. If something requires a strong public statement, to get movement or change, I’m perfectly willing to do that. It’s nothing that most auditors really enjoy doing, but the values of justice and fairness and speaking truth to power supersedes any of the concerns that I might have about staying above the fray.
A.W.: How would you characterize the tone of the audits you’ve conducted?
L.G-V.: We work very hard to make sure that the language is neutral, that we’re not using a lot of jargon, and we’re just presenting the facts. Sometimes just presenting the facts — not making an assessment one way or the other — can be read as pretty strongly worded. I want the tone to be clear. I want the message to be clear. I want the level of neutrality; making strong statements that need to be requirements. I want the public to be able to read it. Commissioners are not always as knowledgeable about the bureaus they’re in charge of. It’s my goal to get our reports to a point where they’re readable and accessable to the public so they can judge for themselves.
A.W.: What do you think the most appropriate response to an audit is on the part of a city elected official or city bureau leaders?
L.G-V.: My preference would always be that we issue these well-received reports and they’re acted on immediately (laughing). About 93 percent of our recommendations are fully implemented, or in the process of being implemented. Within the industry, that’s a very high number. That speaks volumes. I think it’s an indication that they take our audits very seriously. We’re here to get change. That’s our goal.
A.W.: Portland’s motto is “the city that works.” Given your audits on police accountability, the city’s unstable finances, infrastructure improvements and other topics, do you think the city is living up to that pledge?
L.G-V.: Well, back to being neutral. I think the audits speak for themselves. I think our audits … demonstrate that the city may aspire to be the city that works, but the city doesn’t always work. It is an aspirational goal. But our primary goal is to help the city find ways to improve and ultimately work.
A.W.: On Jan. 8, the City Council passed an ordinance beefing up the Independent Police Review’s (IPR) ability to oversee the police bureau and pursue discipline, as part of a settlement with the Department of Justice. What effect do you think those changes will have?
L.G-V.: We’re very happy. One of the most rewarding parts of this job is to make a significant change in the civilian authority of police oversight in the city. Those changes, coming on the heels of very dramatic changes we made in 2010, significantly strengthened IPR’s oversight authority. When I first arrived here, there was no right for IPR to controvert a finding — essentially challenging the finding — which gave us the authority to send investigations back. Now, we are voting members on the Police Review Board. We have a stronger say, we’ll participate in investigations in a more fundamental way.
A.W.: In October 2013, you wrote a pretty blistering memo to City Council when they delayed voting on changes to police oversight, writing that there were “alarming lapses” in police accountability. You also wrote that, “I am concerned by council’s apparent lack of understanding of the gravity and urgency of moving forward with DOJ’s required changes.” Generally speaking, the City Council has been criticized lately as being lackluster, and I wonder if you think this is symptomatic of lacking the political will to enact big policy changes and reforms?
L.G-V.: I’m definitely not ready to say they don’t have the political will. I think it’s easier to focus on and enact things that seem to be something everyone wants. Everyone wants clean air. Everyone wants sustainable green buildings. I’m exaggerating a little bit, but that’s become a Portland value. Things that are a little more politically charged, it’s a little more difficult. These are tough decisions, sometimes, that council members have to make, particularly with limited resources. Hopefully, our work helps them make smarter decisions.
The mayor and Commissioner (Steve) Novick were not part of the body that approved the agreement with the DOJ, so that is a piece of it. I also think there isn’t anyone on the council who had any interaction with the DOJ when they were here. That was the way DOJ wanted to handle it. Frankly — and I don’t mean to be crude — but it’s been some time without a high profile shooting or in-custody death which calls into question the credibility of the police bureau.
In terms of the changes to IPR that we brought before the council, my memo speaks for itself. The mayor is the commissioner in charge of the police bureau, and he lacked engagement in this matter, and that should be a level of concern on a number of fronts. He is the mayor. He needs to send a message to the rest of the council that he understands the changes, understands the system as it exists now, understands how it will change, and he was not able to do that. That sends a confusing message to Council.
Some had a different point of view of how the changes should come about. Commissioner (Amanda) Fritz wanted to convene a stakeholder group to talk about each and every change. I was not prepared to do that. It didn’t seem appropriate to me. We had already spent a year following the DOJ requirements and the city’s requirements, and spending enormous amounts of time communicating with different stakeholders.
So, she had a different point of view. Some were supportive but not particularly vocal at that first hearing, and that was hard to take. And the city attorney wasn’t there, and we had been promised that someone would be. In that memo, I was willing to speak very frankly and harshly about a process that didn’t work for our organization, but was important to the community. I can tell you that some Council members took that very seriously. I don’t do that very often.
A.W.: What do you hope to get done in your last year in office?
L.G-V.: We still have a few more changes to make to IPR’s code in order to fully roll out the DOJ’s agreement. We have some extremely important audits in our audit schedule. Among them is auditing the city attorney’s office — that’s not been something done in many jurisdictions, including this one. There’s always been the concern that it needs some expertise that auditors don’t have. I don’t think it does. We’ve found some guidance from audit shops on how to do it. There is an odd relationship that we have to maintain with the city attorney’s office, because they represent us if need be. There’s always been a level of discomfort. But if there’s anything that can be said about me, it would be that the level of discomfort that has traditionally been part of the auditor’s office has been blown out of the water a couple times. Historically, the auditor hasn’t been willing to do that…but I looked at our city code, and it doesn’t say anything about it.
I hope to be able to make some changes to the internal bureaucratic processes that impact all the bureaus, including mine, through these audits of the city attorney’s office, the budget process and the human resources office. The work of this huge organization is impacted by all those various functions in many, many ways. It was something that was not particularly well received, but an important decision. Maybe it can get Portland a little closer to being the city that works.