(The Center Square) — Portland City Council on Wednesday voted down a request by the city auditor for the city attorney to represent her in a number of legal battles.
Mayor Ted Wheeler’s reelection campaign took City Auditor Mary Hull Caballero to court over two fines she issued against it in August and September for receiving donations well over the voter-approved limit. Those fines totaled $8,700 in all.
Individual campaign contributions are limited to $500 per person in Multnomah County per a 2018 ballot measure which was upheld by the Oregon Supreme Court in April.
Wheeler’s campaign claims that Hull Caballero singled out donations the mayor received before the city auditor began enforcing the cap in May.
The lawsuit demands that Hull Caballero revoke her decision, pay for his legal fees, and acknowledge that such issuing such fines “illegal and unconstitutional.”
Earlier this month, Wheeler’s reelection opponent Sarah Iannarone filed a petition in Multnomah County Circuit Court demanding that Hull Caballero enforce the $5,000 cap after Wheeler allegedly donated $150,000 to his campaign this fall.
Hull Caballero has declined to apply the $5,000 limit to candidates paying for their campaigns out of pocket, arguing that it would not hold up in federal court.
In a heated exchange on Wednesday evening, City Commissioners Amanda Fritz and Jo Ann Hardesty expressed dismay that Hull Caballero would introduce such a resolution for their consideration.
“This is not how elected officials should act and I would suggest the city auditor take a good hard look at how this played out and consider ways she can work in a more collaborative fashion moving forward,” Commissioner Hardesty said.
City Attorney Tracy Reeve, who serves under the mayor and advises Hull Caballero, requested the auditor find her own legal representation on the grounds that doing so would violate the Oregon Rules of Professional Conduct.
“And so where we have ended up drawing the line is we think it’s not appropriate for us to represent the auditor in matters involving the campaigns of currently sitting council members,” Reeve said. “That’s the line that we think permits us to take the absolute most possible representation for the auditor’s office while at the same time not violating our ethical obligation under both state law and the legal rules of ethics.”
Newly appointed City Commissioner Dan Ryan said that he could not support the city auditor’s request.
Hull Caballero insisted that her case is critical for the entire city.
“I understand that the city attorney may be uncomfortable defending the city in a lawsuit brought by the mayor’s campaign committee given that the mayor oversees the city attorney’s office,” Hull Caballero said. “But the mayor’s campaign committee is not the city attorney’s client. A private law firm represents his committee. It is the city at this late hour that is without legal representation.”
Wheeler and City Commissioner Chloe Eudaly are seeking reelection this fall and excused themselves from the discussion.
According to city documents, the Portland city attorney works for $166 per hour in 2020. The average outside counsel rate can cost as much as $500 per hour.
Portland voters will choose between Wheeler and Iannarone for mayor on November 3.