Guest Column 

It was a real loss when the city’s first independent auditor, Pat Major, resigned in April

It was a real loss when the city’s first independent auditor, Pat Major, resigned in April. As the mayor, council, and manager fumble to find a replacement, the importance of having a truly independent set of eyes and ears at City Hall has become ever more apparent.

San Antonio voters approved the charter change creating the council-appointed position in 2001, immediately after the scandals over the BIH convention center and Yanaguana barge contracts (but before the city council bribery scandal). The new position was intended to provide a counterbalance to the city bureaucrat tendency to accommodate favored contractors and interests.

Major effectively tackled a number of difficult issues, including the long-time Convention Center catering contract held by the RK Group and Project Quest’s performance. The latest audit from Major’s old office provides a dramatic commentary on what can go wrong within a bureaucracy.

The audit findings on the San Antonio Police Department’s development of an automated “direct report entry” system notes, “Although the SAPD formally accepted this product from a third-party vendor in August 2003, it still requires major enhancements and additional investment ... ” And the SAPD has become dependent on a pair of consultants to make it work. In the words of the audit, “Currently, SAPD personnel do not possess the knowledge to support the functionality of the DRE System without them.”

Problems with contract oversight and implementation shouldn’t be news to anyone who follows our city government. The audit of the data-entry system was in fact requested by the new police chief, who was apparently willing to question something that didn’t work.

Houston’s recent independent audit performed under its elected city controller provides yet another argument for why an independent set of eyes is needed to check on city business. There, the issue was just making sure that the public really gets what it’s paying for.

The business of “selling” a city and luring conventions and visitors is the job of the Convention and Visitors Bureau. And unlike San Antonio, the Houston CVB is a private entity separate from the city government (although it receives $10 million a year, about 89 percent of the CVB’s total budget, from its host). Houston’s city contract requires that the CVB “book” some 650,000 hotel room nights a year in convention and meeting business. Those bookings are all for future business, often forecasting and estimating occupancy for a decade or more. The numbers are the basis for assessing the CVB’s performance (both here and in Houston) and in paying its employees based on their own sales performance.

Can you guess what happened to the “booking” numbers when Houston’s auditors checked them? First, the audit noted that the CVB’s figures for “definite” or formally contracted room nights “were subjective estimates in many cases,” with “No attempt … by the GHCVB to determine if the final room nights contracted for correlate to the original number recorded by the GHCVB.”

When the auditors checked on a sample of 52 events that had received final contracts, they found that only 71 percent of the room nights listed by the CVB were actually booked.

The situation was even worse for the big draws, such as sporting events, bowl games, and technology conferences. The auditors concluded that “the total room night number on events like these is estimated using some best-guess assumptions and historical data that are also based on assumptions,” with the result that “it `is` impossible to verify actual hotel room nights booked.”

The auditors’ final conclusion about the hundreds of thousands of room nights that the Greater Houston CVB claims each year: “It is clear that confusion and misunderstandings exist about how this number is arrived at, supported, documented, and booked.”

Of course, that couldn’t possibly be the case in San Antonio, could it? Tune in next time.

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