'No' to city audit ordinance

'No' to city audit ordinance

July 30th, 2012 in Opinion Times

There's no question that Chattanooga should have an independent auditor whose work and job status is insulated from political pressure by the city's mayor and members of the City Council. City leaders have come in recent years to support that concept, and the council last year approved a referendum for the ballot Thursday to put the plan for an independent auditor in motion. If it passes, the city charter would be amended to establish a recently drafted ordinance that lays out the legal framework for a new, independent office of internal audit for city government, an auditor to head that office, and an independent audit committee of five local CPA's to guide that office.

Problem is, the new city auditor, and the committee that would appoint him or her, would not be accountable to voters, or to any elected public official. That presents a big problem: an utter lack of public accountability under the statute. Moreover, it would shift current city auditor Stan Sewell into that job - a job that could easily turn into a lifetime sinecure for him so long as he performed well enough to satisfy just two of the five volunteer CPAs that control appointment and removal of the auditor.

Small wonder there is an unanswered question as to whether Sewell is behind the website, sign and letter campaign that promotes voter approval of the ordinance; or that council approval weakened on the second vote to place the ordinance on the ballot.

Sewell and the ordinance's proponents maintain that the method laid out in the ordinance for removal of the auditor is fair. The ordinance says the auditor will be appointed by the outside audit committee and approved by the Council. Removal is allowed for "just cause" by a vote of two-thirds of the five-member audit committed approval by the council.

Here's the kicker: To get two-thirds of the five-member audit committee to initiate removal, four members have to agree on removal. Three members, or 60 percent of the committee, wouldn't pass the "two-thirds" standard.

So all the auditor has to do to keep his taxpayer-financed job and hand-picked staff, is to persuade two people to support him. With that, he/she remains free to develop and lobby for an annual work plan that the audit committee would have to approve. Neither the full City Council or the mayor would have enough standing to have a say in what that work plan contained, or if it met their immediate legitimate needs. Which is why both the mayor and City Council would end up paying for an overlapping auditing function.

The ordinance should be tweaked to improve accountability. If appointment and removal required simultaneous consent of the mayor and six of the nine council members, as it is necessary to fire the city attorney, public accountability would not be an issue. As it is, voters should not pass the ordinance.