When an audit drops in City Hall, does anyone listen?

Publication Date: Wednesday May 6, 1998

CITY GOVERNMENT: When an audit drops in City Hall, does anyone listen?

From travel expenses to planning, Palo Alto's operations seem lacking

by Elisabeth Traugott

since the first of the year, Palo Alto residents have been informed by City Hall staffers and outside consultants that the robust city budget doesn't guarantee a smoothly operating bureaucracy. They've discovered the planning department is poorly managed, the library system suffers from shoddy resource allocation, the travel reimbursement process lacks accountability and some as-yet unnamed emergency services personnel like to offer special treatment to high-ranking officials.

The results of the various audits and reports beg the question: Just what is going on at City Hall?

"I think each one is an individual situation," said Mayor Dick Rosenbaum. The planning department, for example, was inundated with council business just as it was organizing itself to tackle (Stanford's) Sand Hill Road projects, Rosenbaum explained.

"Clearly, they had too much to do and that was a function of council requests. And I've always felt that (the interim) historic preservation (ordinance) was always the straw that broke the camel's back," he said.

But city auditor's records show that noncompliance may actually be a trend rather than an exception to the rule.

Last week's travel expense audit--which indicated that 90 percent of travel expense reports are flawed in some respect--is the most recent in a series of audits within the past 18 months that have found inefficiencies in City Hall.

For example, a February 1997 audit of how the city makes changes to existing contracts indicated that 49 percent of the changes sampled "were not properly justified and/or lacked proper approval."

In one case, a staff secretary approved a $52,099 change order for a landscaping maintenance contract and an increase of $51,000 for the golf course master plan contract.

Two months later, in April 1997, City Auditor Bill Vinson released a scathing report on the city's building inspection practices. He found that, in a sample of 50 inspections performed between January 1995 and March 1996, 84 percent "were finalized without evidence of approval on all required inspections."

Vinson cited the example of a commercial building that received final approval with 11 outstanding inspections, including electrical inspections of rough wiring and fixtures.

In two other audits since 1995, the city auditor reviewed code enforcement practices and contract administration. Both audits drew dire conclusions about the way the city follows its own rules.

After Vinson reported the travel audit results at last week's City Council meeting, most council members were silent. Only Mayor Rosenbaum spoke up to commend the auditor's work and to chastise the practice of sloppy bookkeeping.

Does Vinson feel as if all his work is for naught? He said that in most cases, city staff have been more than amenable to his recommendations for change.

"Our role is to find process improvements and help the city establish compliance with their policies and procedures," Vinson said. "To that extent, I believe we are making inroads." 

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