As we’ve written many times before, local government auditors often face major obstacles in doing their work. Threats to their existence are common, which is not surprising since audits often result in a steady stream of criticism of people who are in power. The criticism may be constructive, but it is often annoying. No one likes to be criticized.
Last week, we wrote about the significant victory experienced by the Portland auditor’s office in a May ballot measure that protected the office from resistance by city administrators and bolstered the office’s independence.
Today, we have a potentially sadder story to tell.
This evening, the Lawrence, KS, City Commission will have a working session to talk about next year’s budget. One of the most controversial items on the agenda is the city manager’s proposal to eliminate the city auditor’s office.
The city manager proposed the same cut last year and it failed. In an article in yesterday’s edition of the Lawrence Journal-World, City Manager Tom Markus explained his position that an auditor’s office was not necessary to evaluate the city’s performance and that there were other ways to do this. He also made it clear that cutting the audit office would not jeopardize the annual financial audit, which is contracted out to a financial audit firm.
The city auditor, who reports to the City Commission and not to the city manager or mayor, focuses on performance audits. Presumably, the city manager’s idea is that matters of performance could be assessed through individual contracts, as well.
So, what’s wrong with cutting out the city audit office and relying on contractors instead?
We’ve been writing about performance auditing for 25 years. Here’s our take: Contractors deal with individual problems on a one-time basis. They do not have the knowledge or sense of history that is present in an established auditor’s office.
There is also the important question of independence. An independent city auditor has more ability to choose the topics to be audited, often in conjunction with a council or commission. A contractor is more likely to be given a specific topic to be covered – one likely chosen by the administration. Of great importance, a contractor would generally sign a contract with the executive branch and report to the administration. An independent auditor does not report directly to the executive branch officials it is responsible for auditing.
If the city audit office survives, one proposal that is being floated in Lawrence is to create an audit committee that would help to bolster the office’s independence and make recommendations to the governing body. It could help ensure quality work from the auditor, consider budgetary questions and have input into the topics chosen for review.
In May, David Givans, the president of the Association of Local Government Auditors (ALGA), sent a letter of support for the Lawrence auditor to the Mayor and City Commission and also supported the idea of an audit committee. It emphasized the importance of local auditor independence and the important role an auditor plays in improving government operations and strengthening public accountability.
In a similar letter last year, ALGA went into more detail about the Lawrence auditor’s work.
“From ALGA’s perspective, Lawrence’s Office of City Auditor is a high quality performance audit office headed by an experienced government auditor. We note that the Lawrence City Auditor successfully passed two rigorous external quality control reviews conducted by ALGA in 2011 and 2015 that demonstrated his office’s compliance with the demanding U.S. Comptroller General’s Government Auditing Standards. The office has also won ALGA’s Knighton Award for the high quality of its report on financial indicators. These accomplishments are notable, particularly because Lawrence has an audit office staffed by only one person.”
The Lawrence auditor, Michael Eglinksi has been in his position since the auditor’s office was established in 2008. City manager Markus took on his role with the city in March of 2016. Eglinski reports that the explanation he received from the city manager for the proposed cut was that there were tough decisions that had to be made. The city manager’s budget eliminates 11 positions in city government. Ten are already vacant. The auditor’s position is the only one of the 11 that’s filled, according to a Journal-World article in early May.
“I went through the stress and hassle of this situation last year,” Eglinski wrote us. “Last year, the Council put the position back in the budget and added a very small property tax increase to cover it. When this was going on last year, I had several other local governments that contacted me and asked if I’d be interested in working for them. Last year, I said, “I’m committed to Lawrence and I really want to stay here and I think I’m doing good work for the organization…but, if things fall apart, I’ll be back in contact.” This year, I’m saying, “I really want the situation to work out in Lawrence, but tell me more about the job.’”
NOTE: See editorial from Lawrence Newspaper on June 14.