Keepin' it weird at City Hall
I've seen a lot of crazy stuff go down in Portland city government, but this one's right up there: The city auditor's office is going after the mayor for campaign finance violations, and the mayor is suing the auditor to fight the fines that the auditor's office is imposing. That's wild enough, with ballots already in voters' hands, but get this – the city attorney, Tracy Reeve (pictured), now says she can't represent the city in the lawsuit that the mayor is bringing, because it would be a conflict of interest.
And the City Council is siding with the city attorney. So now the auditor's office has to go out and hire an outside law firm, at taxpayer expense, to defend itself.
Wait a minute. The city attorney can't enforce campaign finance violations against the mayor?
“We’re concerned that when we are actively engaged in litigation against a City Council member’s campaign, there’s a significant risk that our relationship of trust and confidence with that council member can be materially limited,” Reeve said. “And that is a conflict we are legally and ethically required to avoid.”
Wow. So does this ethical concern apply only to incumbents? What about people who are running for City Council? If they win, they'll be city commissioners, whose "trust and confidence" are supposedly so essential. Does the city have to hire outside lawyers then, too? In other words, can the city attorney get involved in campaign finance enforcement at all?
Well, the city attorney is representing the city in a lawsuit brought by Wheeler's opponent, Sarah Iannarone. Iannarone may be mayor soon. It doesn't seem like there'll be much "trust and confidence" then. Maybe there'll be a new city attorney instead.
The Wheeler litigation is being brought against the city by Wheeler as a candidate for office, not in his capacity as mayor. He's basically suing his employer. Does the employer's regular lawyer really have to recuse herself, just because the plaintiff is an officer of the employer?
What if the mayor gets drunk and wrecks a city car? Does the city have to hire an outside lawyer to sue him? What if he steals money? Does the city have to hire an outside lawyer to get it back?
The city attorney represents the city, not the mayor.
The City Council vote was interesting. Wheeler and Chloe Eudaly, who's also running for re-election, recused themselves – so much recusing – and Hardesty, Ryan, and Fritz all voted to deny in-house representation to the auditor's office. And so I guess if there's ever a time that one of their campaigns decides to fight fines for campaign finance violations, the city attorney will walk away from them, too.
It is one heck of a show down there. More so than ever. But this latest flap over legal counsel sure seems like one more strike against Wheeler. It's hard to believe how fast and far he has fallen. I can barely hold my nose long enough to vote for him.