Audit this

City auditors inevitably present municipalities with a confounding dilemma: How do you enable auditors to be independent enough to do their jobs, while also keeping them accountable enough to prevent them from overstepping their bounds?

Austin City Council Member Lee Leffingwell calls this the “delicate balancing act” that cities face, and few have struggled with that balancing act as much as San Antonio in 2008. In April, City Auditor Pete Gonzales recommended that the city audit its playground-inspection program. In response, City Manager Sheryl Sculley, City Attorney Michael Bernard, and various council members told him that playground inspection was outside of his purview. A few days later, Gonzales was fired, and the ugly episode took an embarrassing turn when the Express-News revealed that the City’s Parks & Recreation Department had failed to consistently conduct inspections of local playgrounds and that recent inspections showed that 15 of 114 playgrounds posed safety risks and had not been fixed.

Facing the sharpest public criticism of his mayoral tenure, Phil Hardberger formed an ad-hoc committee in June to “examine the role and authority of the City Auditor” in San Antonio. The committee reviewed the City Charter and auditing standards established by other cities, and on November 20 the Council approved the creation of a new, expanded committee with authority to oversee the auditor’s office.

This sudden need to properly define the auditor’s powers strikes Gonzales as a cynical political ploy, an act of damage control that will keep city auditors under the thumb of Sculley. To his way of thinking, he had merely followed the auditor’s guidelines established by the Council, and they were the ones who subsequently overstepped their bounds.

He points to the November 1, 2007, uanimous passage of an annual audit plan that included this statement: “The Internal Auditor is hereby authorized at any time during Fiscal Year 2008 to make any and all adjustments to the Plan he deems necessary and appropriate in his sole discretion in order to accommodate any emergency or urgent audit requests, without further action by the City Council.” Gonzales would like to know what part of “sole discretion” and “any and all adjustments” the Council did not understand.

“From the very beginning, I think it was just a facade the mayor, the city manager, and the audit committee put up. They’re trying to cover up the fact that there’s enough verbiage in the city charter and the city ordinance that was passed last year,” Gonzales says.

“I thought it was urgent to do that audit of the playgrounds. It had never been performed. Summertime was coming, tourists were coming, children were getting on the playgrounds, and we had never done this audit before. So to me it was urgent, and this section gave me the authority to do it.”

The new committee opens up fresh concerns without solving the essential problem that has dogged the auditor’s position in the Sculley era: With Council members deferential to the point of obsequiousness to the City Manager, no local auditor stands a chance to investigate anything that Sculley doesn’t want investigated. Perhaps sensing public distrust of the Council’s cozy relationship with the City Manager’s office, the Council provided two of the new audit committee’s five slots to laypeople appointed by the mayor, an idea which met with strong disapproval from Council Members John Clamp and Sheila McNeil (the only two nay votes on the ordinance). Clamp and McNeil argued that bringing more people into the auditing process will only muddy the waters further. In any event, council members will maintain majority control of the committee.

Austin has grappled with its own set of auditor problems in recent years, with City Auditor Steve Morgan taking heat for his criticism of the city’s land-use plans and proposed public-safety merger. Five years ago, Austin’s city manager cut 10 people from Morgan’s staff and placed them under her authority, and Morgan has openly worried about his own job security.

Growing concerns in Austin about the need for independence in the auditor’s office spurred Leffingwell and others to put the matter to public vote. Last month, Austin voters approved Proposition 1, which provides the city auditor with a five-year term which can only be terminated by a Council super-majority (six out of seven members). This auditor-as-elected-official approach is based on the model established in cities such as Oakland, Los Angeles, and Houston.

“There was a general feeling that the existing set-up was that the auditor was an at-will employee of the City Council subject to political pressure, so the whole idea was to make the auditor more independent from political winds,” Leffingwell says.

Leffingwell says Austin city leaders are contemplating the creation of a committee to oversee the city auditor and four other city employees (city manager, city clerk, municipal court clerk, and municipal court clerk). He expresses reservations, however, about San Antonio’s decision to include laypeople on the committee.

“The immediate caution that comes to mind is, ‘How do you pick those two people?’” he says. “Whoever is picked, there’ll be other people out there saying, ‘My group isn’t represented at all. Why can’t I be in on it?’”

Gonzales describes the new committee’s creation as a diversion tactic that will fail to prevent the city manager or city attorney from meddling in the auditor’s affairs.

“This committee is designed to placate the people who were upset with the Council and city government,” he says. “So the Mayor is trying to give them something, so we won’t have this problem again. But that’s not the point. I already had the authority to do what I did. They’re blaming the city charter, they’re blaming the city ordinance. No, the people who should be blamed are the Mayor and the others who orchestrated my ousting.” •

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