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'Accountability' vs. the Real Deal

A response to Mayor Lucy Vinis on a city auditor

Readers of Lucy Vinis’s June 22 viewpoint may have thought the mayor was voicing support for the citizens’ initiative petition, filed in May, that would amend the Eugene City Charter to establish an Office of an Independent elected city auditor. But the mayor’s intent, in sync with city officials, is to undermine the citizens’ effort with their own self-serving version of an audit function.

In 2002, the city refused to pursue an auditor function, despite sending various other charter amendments to the voters. City officials have ducked this issue for the ensuing 15 years while presiding over escalating community distrust due to a lack of transparency and accountability. Suddenly, six weeks after citizens filed their petition, city officials have a newfound zeal for having an auditor.

The subtext of Vinis’s editorial is the introduction of a city-orchestrated-and-subsidized process to create a subordinate auditor position — in order to thwart the citizens’ initiative for a truly independent and autonomous City Auditor’s Office. 

It is important that the public understands the differences between the city’s subordinate auditor — beholden to city officials and the citizens’ proposal for an elected city auditor who is independent of council and/or manager control, and accountable to the public. 

City officials will aggressively oppose opening their books to anyone they cannot influence, manage, penalize, fire, demote, stonewall or otherwise control. 

For starters, an auditor who is appointed by the City Council and/or the city manager can see their responsibilities or position eliminated whenever a new manager or different council takes office. With the citizens’ charter amendment only the voters can fire the auditor.

Vinis specifically rejects auditor oversight of “financial audits” saying, “We already have a strong audit department in our finance division.” 

Her bias underscores our initiative’s emphasis on transparency and accountability. When auditors are subordinate it is city officials who decide whether or not to make audit reports public. Have you ever seen a finance division audit made public? In contrast, the city accountability petition measure guarantees that all audit reports, follow-ups, schedules and findings are available to the public and posted on the auditor’s website. 

Vinis thinks that the auditor shouldn’t have oversight of financial audits because the city has it covered. But, the city’s primary financial audit, the Comprehensive Annual Financial Report (CAFR) is limited to determining whether the city followed certain accounting procedures. The CAFR’s auditors are contracted by the manager and he provides them the data. Verifying the thoroughness and accuracy of the data is not the objective of those audits.

In stark contrast, the citizens’ initiative authorizes the elected city auditor to conduct, or cause to be conducted, financial, compliance, performance, special studies or other audits of all aspects of the city of Eugene’s government operations. Which means the elected city auditor can go to the source and verify the data’s accuracy.

The city is laying the groundwork for an audit position that is subordinate to the manager and/or council, possibly with an appointed “audit committee.” In such a case, the City Council and/or manager (and cherry-picked committee) will determine what the auditor may audit and, more importantly, what the auditor must not investigate. Such an auditor would have no control over their ability to access materials, evidence, and witnesses to complete an audit.

Alternatively, the citizens’ initiative authorizes the auditor to have complete control over which audits to pursue and when. It also guarantees that the auditor has the authority to compel access to all data, material, witnesses, or evidence necessary to complete an audit.

Vinis casually suggests the city could share an auditor with Lane County. It’s a bad idea, and serves to demonstrate the downside of having a competent, but subordinate, auditor who is forced to adhere to a limited objective as defined by the commission/committee — and where the data is provided by the supervising officials. Here is a direct quote from “Lane County Financial Indicators Audit,” which is typical of this circumstance;

“As nearly all financial information presented is from the CAFR, we relied on the work performed by the County’s external financial auditors. We reviewed other information for reasonableness and consistency. We did not independently audit the accuracy of source documents.”

In other words, they were not authorized by the commissioners to turn over any rocks or look under the rug. They did not investigate whether current department budgets are being spent cost-effectively. 

Eugene’s elected independent city auditor will be authorized to follow the money — if the ballot measure passes.

Former City Councilor Bonny Bettman McCornack is a chief petitioner along with former City Councilor George Brown and neighborhood leader David Monk, for the citizens' initiative to establish a Eugene Auditor’s Office headed by an independent, elected city auditor.  For more info: cityaccountability.org