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City auditor to leave for job in San Jose

Original post made on Jan 29, 2008

Palo Alto's popular city auditor, Sharon Erickson, announced Tuesday she is leaving the city to serve as San Jose's top auditor.

Read the full story here Web Link posted Tuesday, January 29, 2008, 4:04 PM

Comments (17)

Posted by Fred Balin, a resident of College Terrace
on Jan 29, 2008 at 7:40 pm

A huge loss, but she deserves this big step up.
I wish her well.


Posted by Terry, a resident of Midtown
on Jan 29, 2008 at 9:25 pm

Gosh, that one hurts! Sharon, congrats on the new position and thank you for your service to PA. If the commute doesn't suit you, please come back! I only hope you have groomed a worthy successor.


Posted by Ray Bacchetti, a resident of University South
on Jan 29, 2008 at 9:57 pm

Sharon is a model of how an auditor can be incisive, comprehensive, and constructive . . . and a pleasure to work with. She'll be mightily missed, and I wish her well. I hope San Jose realizes how lucky it is.


Posted by Rotation-Is-Good, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 30, 2008 at 5:02 pm

During this auditor's tenure:

1) a scandal in the utility department

2) a scandal in the police department

3) a Assistant-City Manager put on leave for inappropriate behavior

4) a need to replace the garbage pickup contractor

5) a grand jury report about poor property room management by the police.

6) a web-site developed that was a disgrace

7) little/no increase in audit department staff while the budget almost doubled.

8) extremely poor contract handling by the utilities/city manager (ie -- Enron)

9) alleged thefts in the children's theatre

The auditor did not take on audits before, or after, any of these events. The auditor did not schedule any audits of any major departments, such as police, fire, and IT.

While this auditor did manage to generate a number of audits that might have been needed for some upcoming decision by the city council, it became clear recently that many of her recommendations had not been implemented.

Perhaps this auditor is a nice person, but the job of auditing an organization as large as the city of palo alto needs more people than she was able to justify with her less than aggressive approach to auditing.

Hopefully the next auditor will be a little less nice, and a little more interested in producing some hard-hitting audits.


Posted by Terry, a resident of Midtown
on Jan 30, 2008 at 5:08 pm

Maybe RIG. I guess she did such a bad job, she got a big promotion.

How do you think the auditor can produce "hard hitting results"? What should be done differently?


Posted by Rotation-Is-Good, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 30, 2008 at 7:37 pm

> How do you think the auditor can produce
> "hard hitting results"?

The point is effectively answered in the list of audits that WERE NOT produced, or even attempted.

> What should be done differently?

Put all of the departments on a schedule that has each major department audited at least once every five years. Increase the audit staff by at least double. Make certain that any construction projects have an internal auditor looking at contract administration, cost estimate overshoots and delays. Do not allow the Department Heads to turn off investigations/audits that need to be done when the schedule says they need to be done.

The biggest problem with this auditor was that she did not establish a framework for the audit process so that departments could internally self-audit, and then be reviewed by the city auditor from time-to-time.


Posted by Terry, a resident of Midtown
on Jan 30, 2008 at 8:00 pm

Thanks RIG. Your original list has a feeling of "if bad things happen, the auditor failed" which is not so compelling to me. But you make some suggestions that sound interesting.

But it seems with the efforts and recommendations that the auditor DID make, few are implemented. Would more audit resource just create more ignored analysis and recommendations? Do we need a CM and Council that give more weight to the auditor's input before we invest in more audit output?


Posted by Rotation-Is-Good, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 30, 2008 at 9:02 pm

> Would more audit resource just create more
> ignored analysis and recommendations?

While a possibility, the answer is in the quality of the recommendations. This topic got kicked around a bit in another thread. The City Manager has to get into the picture here. He/she needs to make be able to either refute, or adopt, these recommendations. Unfortunately, it appeared that he didn't do a very good job of dealing with these recommendations, one way or the other.

Many of the recommendations made by the auditor were not easily understood in terms of cost savings. Having more, and different, kinds of audit personnel might provide an opportunity to look at making recommendations which might actually save the city money. Just throwing out a suggestion doesn't mean that the suggest change will actually save money.

The auditor can only do so much, the rest of the job falls on the city manager.

> Do we need a CM and Council that give more weight to the auditor's
> input before we invest in more audit output?

The answer her is trying to determine whether the auditor's recommendations have any value, or not. Most audit staff have little professional training in the areas where they are auditing. It might be valuable for some of any additional staff to actually be "embedded" in the departments for a while as observers and "trainees".

The fact that so many of this auditor's recommendations might easily mean that the Department Heads were not impressed. It also might mean that they saw their Departments territorially, and were not about to be pushed about by the CM, or the auditor.

Unfortunately, given how light weight the councils have been, their input is not all that valuable to anyone.


Posted by Fireman, a resident of another community
on Jan 31, 2008 at 8:45 am

Terry. If you looked or wanted to really find out. Many people in the CPA do a bad job and do quit well..POLITIC's have more to do with the climb up the ladder then, JOB PERFORMANCE.


Posted by Paul, a resident of Downtown North
on Jan 31, 2008 at 12:32 pm

The bottom line is clear: The auditor had to go because she said too much that nobody wanted to hear.

Here's the job description for her successor:

Do not offend the city departments. It's a waste of your time. Ditto for lauding them, but see below.

Do smile and tell the city council things are just rosy everywhere. Else you're wasting your time, and they're the ones who can fire you.


Posted by Another One Bites the Dust, a resident of another community
on Feb 1, 2008 at 5:23 pm

Another one bites the dust
Another one bites the dust
And another one gone, and another one gone
Another one bites the dust
Hey, Im gonna get you too
Another one bites the dust


Posted by Terry, a resident of Midtown
on Feb 1, 2008 at 5:37 pm

Paul, why do you feel she was forced out? Looks like she left for a pay raise and a bigger job (18 reports vs. 4), at the place she worked for 12 years before working in PA. Do you think some of the story has gone un-reported?


Posted by Logical, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 1, 2008 at 6:59 pm

Terry,

I think Paul is on to something. The perks she is leaving behind (Utility discount, Retiree health care for life, PERS 2.7@55) don't match in value with the increase in salary.

While it may be a "bigger job" it's lesser compensation in the long term.

I can only imagine her frustration in seeing the vast majority of her audit recommendations go unheeded, but I also think the Daily got another factor right that was not mentioned in the Weekly.

The work environment Emily Harrison created:

Web Link


Posted by Terry, a resident of Midtown
on Feb 1, 2008 at 7:16 pm

That's interesting. I'm sure she liked the idea of working in her home town and the small department was part of the package. On the other hand, from a professional advancement point of view, there is a lot to being part of a bigger org.

It may well be that various aspects of the our "small town" system - Emily Harrison, aloof CM, a new unknown CM on the way, a flaccid city counsel not really focused much with improving operations - made her feel that she couldn't accomplish what she had hoped. It would be good for some of the Council to conduct an exit interview with her to get a candid view from the inside.


Posted by Paul, a resident of Downtown North
on Feb 4, 2008 at 9:28 am

Bingo, Terry


Posted by Paul, a resident of Downtown North
on Feb 4, 2008 at 1:31 pm

Hello, Terry

Here's a fuller response.

I don't think the auditor was forced out. I think she was sidelined out by a combination of feudal departmental politics and, as you aptly put it, the [perennially] flaccid city council which is her nominal boss. This Weekly article tells it all: Web Link. A better paying opportunity would seem totally irresisible under those circumstances.

By the way, the auditor reports directly to the city council and therefore has a formal rank equal to the city manager. The CM cannot boss the auditor. Emily Harrison is one more step down. However, she is a far more involved and effective administrator that our present CM, and our town government would probably cease to function if she left. If her persona is what it takes to get things done in city hall, then we had better keep her until the system proves responsive to more conventional mnanagement practices. Meantime, if you need something done, don't waste your time calling Frank, call Emily.



Posted by Terry, a resident of Midtown
on Feb 4, 2008 at 2:42 pm

Thanks Paul. That's a pretty sad state of affairs. I hope we can upgrade our management at least to "normal" this time around.


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