For years, the city auditors in Palo Alto have tackled long-simmering and political thorny issues such as the subpar condition of the city's animal shelter and City Hall's inconsistent code enforcement operation.
Palo Alto's new city auditor, Kyle O'Rourke, is taking an altogether different approach to the job. Since getting hired by the city in late September, O'Rourke has been compiling a risk assessment that includes 148 potential risk areas spanning every aspect of the City Hall operation, from replacement of gas mains and payroll management to ransomware and staffing levels in the Police Department.
The items, as O'Rourke told the council's Policy and Services Committee on Tuesday, represent "things that can go wrong" and where the auditors can add value.
Every item received a score based on the likelihood of occurring and the severity of impact. Those with the highest scores became the auditor's top priorities for the coming 18-month period.
O'Rourke, who joined the city in October, is the first city auditor in the city's history to work for an outside firm, thanks to the City Council's move last year to eliminate every position in the Office of City Auditor and to outsource the office's function. The council's decision came after years of internal squabbling within the office and high turnover in the city auditor position.
Council members also had indicated that they want to see more productivity from the office, as well as a greater focus on areas where the city's risks and liabilities are particularly high.
The risk assessment aims to identify these areas. High on the list, according to O'Rourke, is the construction of the new public safety building, a $118 million project that the city plans to start building in the coming months and complete in 2023. The auditor's office plans to take an active role in the project by reviewing any potential change orders for the project and making sure they are accurate and justifiable, O'Rourke said at the virtual meeting.
The committee swiftly signed off on his proposed work plan, which includes seven audits that O'Rourke and his team plan to complete in the coming year. These include, among others, a review of the city's practices for managing construction projects; an audit of security and governance in the city's information technology operation; and a review of Utilities Department's power purchases.
The auditor also proposed assisting the city with its economic recovery effort, the council's top priority for the year. This includes reviewing the city's long-term financial forecasts, recommending improvements to its planning models and advising the city during the process of adopting the budget for fiscal year 2022.
"Essentially, what we want to have is the ability to offer independent and objective advice, potentially research as the city goes through the current budgeting process," he said.
Future audits would focus on the city's building-permits operation; its procedures for vetting nonprofit groups with which it partners; and the Utilities Department's management of work orders, according to O'Rourke's report.
The committee unanimously supported the auditor's plan, which will now go to the full council for approval. While members supported all of the proposed tasks in O'Rourke's plan, council member Greg Tanaka suggested another: a review of reports from city staff. Tanaka suggested that staff reports often fail to provide all the salient facts that the council needs to make an informed decision on a major contract. Staff also often fails to offer a counterpoint to its recommendation.
"It bothers me actually because we're trusted with the public's money and we should be trying to make sure it's spent well," Tanaka said.