Sunday, February 20, 2011

City Auditor

Here is a name you probably do not remember: “Randy Breeding”.  Perhaps the name “Jeff Litchfield” is vaguely familiar.  Or maybe “Denny Nestor” rings a bell.  These are all people who have served either as the City Auditor or acting city auditor for the City of Colorado Springs.  Up to now, this has been a back room position.  The city auditors have generally shunned the lime light and just done their job.  Performing in sort of a Joe Friday just-the-facts-ma’am manner, the City Council has wanted the auditor to investigate city agencies to insure their compliance with accounting and city code requirements, and to protect the city.  One overarching requirement: if the auditor found something wrong, some embarrassing fact or other practice that wasted or endangered taxpayer money, he was to work it out quietly.  Avoid the front page and give the audited agency the opportunity to correct and amend its ways and to save face.

That may all be about to change.  City staff no longer reports up through the city manager to the city council.  We now have a strong mayor, and all city staff report to the mayor, who has the authority to hire or fire any city employee.   Unlike a city manager, the mayor, being the chief administrative officer now has a separate and substantial political base to enlarge and protect.  In all likelihood, the mayor, no matter how altruistic, will be tempted to control bad or embarrassing information and prevent it being made public.  Oh!  But wait, “the Colorado Open Records Act will make all information public” you might say.  There’s this little exception to the open records act called the work product exception for an elected official.  The city manager was not an elected official; the mayor is.  And now the mayor can invoke this open records exception to cloak in secrecy any draft of any document prepared at his direction.  Oops, this research is not going in a manner that supports my policies, stamp it “Draft – Work Product for an Elected Official” and it never sees the light of day.  A low level employee leeks it to the press?  Let’s see how she likes drawing unemployment compensation; it won’t take too many examples for other city employees to get the message.

The problem with this is that not only does the wool get pulled over the public’s eyes, it gets pulled over
City Council’s eyes too.  How to combat the information blackout?  Use the city auditor, the one person remaining who reports directly to City Council, to investigate and publish the information.  Write city codes (Be careful Council, you may have to contract out to get this work done to your satisfaction, since the city attorney no longer answers to you, is no longer loyal to you!) that enable the auditor effectively to carry out this duty.  Plan and budget to double or triple the auditor’s staff.   And if you’re the new city auditor, get used to seeing your name in the papers – you’re going to be famous!

By Randy Purvis

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