Palo Alto City Auditor Harriet Richardson plans to step down from her position in February, leaving yet another high-profile vacancy at City Hall.
Richardson, a Washington state native who joined the city in April 2014, told the Weekly that she plans to retire on Feb. 15. Until that time, she plans to work on the National Citizen Survey and on creating guidelines for her successor in the position, she said.
City Auditor Harriet Richardson. Photo courtesy city of Palo Alto.
It also means that the city will see turnover in two of its four council-appointed officer positions. City Manager James Keene is set to retire at the end of this week. Ed Shikada, who currently serves as assistant city manager and general manager of the Utilities Department, is set to take over as city manager on Saturday.
Richardson's departure follows a turbulent year in which her office released several critical audits and faced the prospect of losing most of its staffing. In November, she released an audit of the city's code-enforcement program, which found that the program is marred by "unclear roles and responsibilities" and that the city's records "do not provide reliable and useful information for management decisions."
The audit prompted a renewed effort by Shikada to better coordinate the code-enforcement functions of various departments and to resolve the bugs in the city's 311 system, which allows residents to report violations.
Other recent audits spotlighted targeted the city's business registry, which according to her review includes "inaccurate, incomplete and inconsistent data," and the city's Enterprise Resource Planning system (which handles the city's human-resources and payroll functions), which is managed by SAP and which her audit found would benefit from better data standardization.
Among the most influential reports that her office had produced during her nearly five-year tenure was the 2015 audit of the city's animal-services operation. That audit concluded that the city's existing animal shelter is "outdated and does not meet modern standards of care." It also concluded that the animal shelter faces challenges that are "unlikely to be resolved if it continues operating as a solely a city-managed function without a significant increase in general fund subsidy, donations, and/or revenue-generating contracts."
The review spurred the city to seek a partner for managing animal services – a long and complex process that the City Council finally completed in November when it approved a contract with the nonprofit Pets In Need to manage the city's animal services.
Though her small office rarely enters the public spotlight, it became a source of controversy in May, when the City Council Finance Committee briefly flirted with the idea of eliminating the four auditor positions in the auditor's office from the city budget (Richardson's position is required by the City Charter and would remain in place) and outsourcing auditing to a private contractor. The idea was ultimately scrapped after pushback from numerous residents, including former City Auditor Sharon Erickson.
Richardson has also faced some resistance from within her own ranks, including at least two complaints from her staff members that prompted investigations. In both cases, allegations against her were unsubstantiated, according to numerous City Hall officials (city officials declined to discuss this issue on the record, citing the fact that this is a personnel issue that was subject to closed-session discussions).
One former city employee who is familiar with the situation characterized the conflict between Richardson and three auditors as a culture clash, with veteran auditors balking at the more hands-on approach that Richardson introduced when she took over the top position in the office.
In proposing to cut the auditor positions earlier this year, Councilman Greg Scharff alluded to "productivity issues" within the office and argued that audits are taking too long to produce. That said, Richardson enjoyed broad support from the council. On Dec. 17, in its final meeting of the year, the council unanimously approved a 4 percent raise for Richardson.
Richardson told the Weekly that she and her husband, who works for the Federal Aviation Administration, have been mulling retirement for the past year. She said that he is set to retire in June.
She said she has held several meetings with Vice Mayor Eric Filseth, who is likely to be mayor next year, to discuss her retirement plans and the best way for her to help the city prepare for a successor. She said she plans to spend the remainder of her tenure in Palo Alto working on the annual citizen survey, which she will present to the council during its annual retreat early next year, and on helping with the transition. This includes creating a guide for both the next auditor and for other city departments, with the goal of helping them understand the functions and procedures of the city auditor's office.
"There are things that you learn that you wouldn't necessarily know if you hadn't been involved," Richardson said.
Richardson's impending departure adds to an already long list of vacancies in the executive ranks. The city is currently operating without a permanent planning director, chief financial officer, chief information officer, development services director, community services director or fire chief.
It will also have new vacancies next week in the positions of Utilities general manager and assistant city manager — positions that Shikada currently occupies.