Future of auditor's office uncertain | News | Palo Alto Online |


Future of auditor's office uncertain

City considers small but critical operation

With City Auditor Harriet Richardson concluding her Palo Alto tenure this month, city officials are preparing to hire a consultant to manage the office while the City Council considers its long-term future this Monday.

The small but busy office has been wracked with controversy over the past year, hampered by in-fighting between Richardson and several members of her staff and by uncertainty over its future. Last May, the council's Finance Committee briefly flirted with outsourcing its services entirely, a proposal that it ultimately scuttled after criticism from former city auditors and several members of the council and members of the community.

At one point, staff from the auditor's office had even considered taking legal action against the city, though they ultimately chose not to once the council decided to retain the positions.

Despite the internal discord, the auditor's office has been on the frontlines in recent years in identifying problems and recommending solutions to key municipal programs, including Palo Alto's increasingly costly animal services operation (which was just outsourced to the nonprofit Pets In Need), its buggy business registry system and its inconsistent code-enforcement program.

In approving its annual budget last summer, the council agreed to retain all five performance auditor positions (which former Councilman Greg Scharff had previously recommended eliminating). The Finance Committee also recommended by a 3-1 vote, with Lydia Kou dissenting, that the council should revisit the topic of the office's long-term future later in the year.

Kou stressed the importance of keeping a fully staffed Office of the City Auditor, which was created in 1983 by a city vote. The city auditor is one of four positions -- along with city manager, city attorney and city clerk -- that is appointed directly by the council.

Now, with Richardson's departure, the office is preparing for a transition period. A new report from the office of City Manager Ed Shikada recommends hiring the consulting company Management Partners to oversee the office's ongoing work on an interim basis. The agreement is expected to span between four to six months, with compensation coming from salary savings related to Richardson's departure. The Human Resources Department will also assign a manager to provide "ongoing personnel supervision" to the auditor's office, according to the report.

At the same time, the city is preparing to put out a request for proposals for another consultant who will help the council consider broader long-term changes for the office. The consultant would help compare Palo Alto's city auditor function with those of other government agencies and consider whether some of the office's responsibilities should be shifted from the auditor's office to that of the city manager (whose programs are routinely overseen by the auditor).

The report from Shikada's office notes that the resources needed to staff the city auditor's office "could be provided in a variety of manners, ranging from entirely in-house staffing to project-specific consultant engagement, or a combination of resources."

"Given the City Council's ongoing review of the city's strategy for fiscal stability, including the costs and funding necessary for city-employee pensions, this is an appropriate time to review organizational options for resourcing the city's audit function."


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36 people like this
Posted by Anon
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Feb 22, 2019 at 8:55 am

Seems vital to have an independent city council appointed auditor.

Since it was a vote of the people on 1983 to have a CC appointed auditor shouldn’t it take a vote of the people to eliminate the office?

Between this and other patronizing comments recently from the duas including kniss comments about “no traffic problems” and her recent slide show of “ye olde Palo Alto” it feels as if we are being talked down to.
The citizens are already mistrustful of many aspects of local government; this needs to be repaired not made worse!!!

44 people like this
Posted by Sally
a resident of Downtown North
on Feb 22, 2019 at 9:53 am

We need a strong independent audit function. Palo Alto has indeed had a weak audit office lately, with output lacking in quality and quantity. Council ultimately takes the blame for this. The City Auditor reports to them.

Council needs to step up to their job. That means hiring an A+ auditor to run the audit team. It means taking reasonable action when things fall out of alignment. Any council member that doesn't think they can handle this is essentially saying they're not fit for the job.

Now, rather than working to hire a great auditor, we are hiring an expensive consultant to repeat back (with gravitas) what the City Manger and Council want to hear. [This is how consultancies work, and it exemplifies why we need an independent auditor to begin with.]

My alternative is simple. Grow a backbone, and step up to your job description.

26 people like this
Posted by NeilsonBuchanan
a resident of Downtown North
on Feb 22, 2019 at 11:25 am

NeilsonBuchanan is a registered user.

An independent internal city auditor is fundamental to good government. I can support a truly indpendent assessement of the organization, funding level and performance of the current Auditor's Office.

Auditor function balance of power principal.

Our city Manager and City Council surely must recognize the auditor function makes thei jobs easier in the long run. We should expect an city auditor to create a bit of friction. Any effort to push difficult issues out of public sight must rejected by the Council and citizens who elect the Council. Let's see what comes back to Council in a few months.

30 people like this
Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 22, 2019 at 11:51 am

>> The Finance Committee also recommended by a 3-1 vote, with Lydia Kou dissenting, that the council should revisit the topic of the office's long-term future later in the year.

>> Kou stressed the importance of keeping a fully staffed Office of the City Auditor, which was created in 1983 by a city vote.

Once again, council member Kou stands up for principle.

26 people like this
Posted by Mry
a resident of Midtown
on Feb 22, 2019 at 12:27 pm

The cc needs to do their job and hire and fund a top rated Auditor with sufficient staff. Forget about consultant or revisiting later in the year.

15 people like this
Posted by Fly on the wall
a resident of University South
on Feb 22, 2019 at 1:10 pm

The underlying problem and open secret within city hall is that three successive highly competent and experienced city auditors have given up on the job because of undermining by rigid and miss guided members of the auditors’ staff. Those employees have skillfully used labor protections to prevent their own reform or replacement. The city HR department, legal staff and city council has been struggling with how to contend with the problem. That’s what is behind consideration of eliminating the office.

15 people like this
Posted by Sally
a resident of Downtown North
on Feb 22, 2019 at 3:47 pm

@Fly on the Wall

Yes, most people here know the context of difficult HR scenarios (less public) and poor output (fully public for all who take the time to read reports and think). The response is what folks here are taking issue with, and more will be taking issue as the news of their plot spreads.

The history of the office's problems, at some point, simply doesn't matter. I keep lecturing myself about this, because it's easy to get lost in all sorts of weeds on this.

[Although that history should inform council that we need a poised and experienced personnel manager.... Someone who will set standards and hold folks to them with fairness, transparency, and accountability. PIPs when needed, Management 101 stuff.]

Drama aside: (1) We know need a powerful and independent audit function. That is not only good sense, but also compelled by the early 80s vote. (2) We know the City Manager's Office can't audit itself, or manage its own audits of itself. (3) We know need strong oversight from council.

We need folks to do what is literally their job.

We cannot forfeit the independent audit function because it's tough to manage sometimes. That would be misguided and cowardly.

17 people like this
Posted by Yes, We need an internal auditor.
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Feb 22, 2019 at 4:04 pm

Yes, We need an internal auditor. is a registered user.

Good internal auditor, good government--money well spent. Just do it.

3 people like this
Posted by jh
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Feb 22, 2019 at 4:06 pm

jh is a registered user.

Is it against labor laws to eliminate the department and its staff and then after some period of time hire a new auditor who can hire their own staff? Given what previous auditors have brought to light we definitely need an auditor's office. As has been already demonstrated, outside consultants do not have and cannot in the short-term acquire sufficient knowledge of the city and its workings to drill down and produce the kind of substantive in depth report that makes their report worth much much than the paper it is written on. Worse, it is actually damaging because it is misleading.

Maybe we would be better served in the long run even if it means there is a period without any auditing.

Does the auditor report directly to the council?

3 people like this
Posted by resident
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Feb 22, 2019 at 10:30 pm

I thought our auditors were pretty much PR people publishing lavish praise on the city government. It struck me as odd that when Sharon Ericson left so many managers sang her praises. I didn't know what to make of that.

The recent Citizens Surveys reports are a disgrace, the most recent one not quite as bad as earlier ones. Pages and pages and pages of detailed statistics comparing the current year to the last ten years, or comparing our city to a looong list of other cities. Irrelevant and unreadable.

Maybe the City Manager had something to do with it - put out long, dense documents that hardly anyone will read.

5 people like this
Posted by jh
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Feb 23, 2019 at 2:05 pm

jh is a registered user.

Best accomplished when hiring outside consultants who can produce reams of data but only superficial conclusions.

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