Around Town | August 16, 2019 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - August 16, 2019

Around Town

THE AUDITED ... For decades, the City Auditor's Office has led the charge on identifying flaws in Palo Alto's programs and shortcomings in its facilities. Its scathing review of the local animal shelter has helped spur the City Council to commit to short-term infrastructure improvements and a long-term partnership with the nonprofit Pets In Need to operate the beleaguered facility. Its audit of the business license tax program has shown the program to be inaccurate and unreliable. Its recent look at Palo Alto's code-enforcement program has revealed a slew of flaws in how the program is administered and in how the city communicates with residents. Now, the five-person office is itself undergoing an audit of sorts — one with existential implications for its operation. The city has recently approved a $32,780 contract with the firm Kevin Harper, CPA and Associates, to perform an "organizational review" of the City Auditor's Office. The review will consider what other cities are doing and evaluate whether some of the functions of the office should be placed under the purview of the city manager, a move that could effectively eliminate its independence. The review is taking place at a time of flux for the office, which has been without a permanent leader since February, when City Auditor Harriett Richardson resigned (in June, Richardson was appointed by Gov. Gavin Newsom to serve as BART's inspector general — the first person to hold that position). Though the city auditor position was established by voters and is required by City Charter, the council has not been in a rush to replace Richardson (the office is now overseen by a consultant, Don Rhoads). Last year, council members flirted with the idea of eliminating all the positions in the office except the city auditor, though they backed away in the face of community opposition. The city auditor position is one of four that is selected directly by the council — along with city manager, city attorney and city clerk.

FILLING THE GAP ... A project that bicyclists, runners and hikers have long awaited for is set to begin later this month. The Ravenswood Bay Trail is expected to begin construction, which has forced the closure of Ravenswood Open Space Preserve and its parking lot starting Monday, Aug. 19, through Jan. 31, according to the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District. Visitors may also face traffic control on roadways as crews bring in large equipment and materials to the site, where they'll work on the 0.6-mile gap between the preserve and University Avenue that runs between East Palo Alto and Menlo Park. Construction vehicles are expected on Bay Road, University Avenue and the gate at the end of Fordham Street. Once the project is completed next summer, it'll provide a complete 80-mile connection from Menlo Park to Sunnyvale and across the Dumbarton Bridge to the East Bay. Currently, the trail at the preserve hits a dead end farther north, near the former Dumbarton rail line. For more information on the project, visit

OUT WITH THE OLD, IN WITH THE NEW ... Once local voters head to the polls next year, they'll get to experience Santa Clara County's new voting system, which will be updated for the first time since 2003. The Board of Supervisors approved the upgrade to the Dominions Voting Systems model at its Tuesday meeting, which came after years of consultation and discussion about the best replacement at the Registrar of Voters. "We are looking forward to this change," Registrar of Voters Shannon Bushey said in a news release. "We think voters will like the new system, and we appreciate the increase in performance and processing speed the new voting system will bring, as well as its stringent vote-security measures." Voters will notice new ballot scanners, tabulators and ballot-marking devices complaint with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act. The most significant change will come on election night when the system will remotely tabulate ballots submitted at each vote center, providing for quicker results. Currently, ballots must be sent back to the Registrar's main office where they are tabulated. The system will cost $15 million for an eight-year lease, with $5.6 million potentially offset through a state reimbursement for modernizing the voting system.


17 people like this
Posted by Sally
a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 18, 2019 at 6:41 am

The story about our independent Auditor's Office is of crucial importance.

The plan afoot (hopefully dead by now) was to eliminate the auditor's office and replace it with an outside consultant reporting to the City Manager. It was only did Palo Altoans notice and voiced their outrage, but our City Charter pretty clearly demands a full auditor AND expressly prohibits intermingling with City Manager functions. Someone in City Hall might have finally read the City Charter by now....

The Backstory: The office has been ineffective lately, and bureaucrats avoid difficult clean-up work. Add to that the ever-present concern about pension costs, and elimination seems attractive. The contractor we've hired in the interim will do what all contracted consultants do... give gravitas to what the client already wanted to hear... that summarizes why we need an independent auditor's office. The charter lays out that we are also entitled to one.

The Solution: City Council needs to do its job. The City Auditor reports directly to them. Blame for poor performance rolls up ultimately to them. If Council Members aren't up for that, they are simply saying they are incapable of executing their job responsibilities.

9 people like this
Posted by Citizen
a resident of College Terrace
on Aug 18, 2019 at 10:25 pm

City Council - please comply with the voters' request and the city charter's requirements: appoint an independent auditor asap, and fully fund and staff the office.

This story and the council and city's contemplated actions bring disrepute to all. City Council, please meet your obligations to your taxpaying constituents to appoint a city auditor.

The city's budget is approaching $1 billion and the city's unfunded employee pension liabilities are reportedly $900 million. An auditor is needed.

5 people like this
Posted by Art
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 20, 2019 at 2:30 pm

Art is a registered user.

Shame (double shame) on whoever is suggesting that "some of the functions of the office should be placed under the purview of the city manager, a move that could effectively eliminate its independence." The independence of the auditor is sacrosanct; that's why the office was structured this way in our City's Charter. The independence of the auditor from overview by other City Departments and other City employees is absolutely CRITICAL to its operation and explains its usefulness. For example, some have made criticisms of the recent Code Enforcement audit, that it was too honest, too searing in its conclusions, too clear in the shortcomings of staff and of staffing. It indicated what Council needed to do to remedy the problems and Council enthusiastically embraced the audit. Had the audit been done under the authority of the City Manager, it would have been pigeonholed and not have seen the light of day.

2 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of another community
on Aug 20, 2019 at 8:16 pm

I agree that we need an independent audit function. The recent audits all pointed out important issues, and I think they have been much easier to read than the audits that were done years ago. Based on the previous council comments that suggested eliminating the staff, it seemed that productivity was an issue, and comments made in previous articles suggested that the staff were very resistant to the previous city auditor's attempts to make them more productive. Perhaps a revamping of the auditor's office is necessary, but contracting out the function isn't the answer, and putting it under the city manager is definitely not the answer. If staff are a problem, get rid of them, even if you have to pay them to leave, and hire people who are willing to do the job.

2 people like this
Posted by TheLookingGlass
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 21, 2019 at 4:41 pm

To "Resident": The problem was not the audit staff - the problem was Richardson. By all accounts, she was a terrible manager, whose ideas of "increasing productivity" actually did the opposite. God help BART (her new employer). I am not a member of the audit staff, but the situation is pretty well-known to insiders (both at City Hall and in the general professional auditor community.)

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