In their rush to get a referendum on the Aug. 2 ballot to create an independent city auditor's office, City Council members made two big mistakes. They failed to make the city auditor accountable in any concrete way to the elected public officials whom city voters and taxpayers hold responsible for city government and its costs. And they failed to impose a discernible limit or cap on the auditor's salary.
On both points, these decisions are wrongly left up to an outside, five-member audit committee. With passage of the referendum 16 days ago, these five outsiders -- whose committee will become self-perpetuating once the original members are appointed -- will assume these powers. They and their self-appointed successors will determine over the years how much taxpayers should pay for the salaries of the auditor and his or her staff (currently four people), and when or if the auditor should be fired.
And since it takes the vote of four of the five members to terminate of the auditor, just two dissenters can keep an auditor in power -- even if city government officials and a majority of the audit committee itself justifiably seek to fire the auditor.
This surrender of all city authority to two members of an outsider club of five is too much to give. City officials need a more participatory role in both salary and the authority to terminate the auditor. But if they are to have a say, City Council members need to adopt a revised version of the auditor ordinance by the end of the month to get a corrective referendum on the November ballot. City Council members Peter Murphy and Jack Benson are rightly pursuing that option.
There's no question that the new auditor's office should have substantial independence to monitor expenditures and check the books for city government's operations and spending. That function should be free from political meddling and partisan or personal goals. That's the core reason for the newly adopted ordinance. But providing that independence shouldn't require city officials to abandon even partial authority to set limits on salaries and terms for removal from office.
The city's elected mayor and City Council members deserve more say on these points because they are closer to the mechanics and details of city government than an outside, volunteer oversight committee, which has to approve the auditor's work plan, ever will be. They simply are in a better position to know whether specific needs and departments are receiving adequate audit attention.
Given the proper and inherent tension between part-time city council members and the strong, fulltime mayor's position, it would make better sense to allow a two-thirds majority vote of the nine-member City Council to terminate the city auditor for cause. That would give the Council a meaningful limit on the auditor's office, which is otherwise a cozy life-time sinecure so long as just two members of the audit committee stand in favor of the auditor.
Similarly, a revised ordinance should limit the open-ended pay clause. As the new ordinance is written, city government is not allowed to reduce the budget for the auditor's office. Instead, the five-member committee can use national "market data" to set the auditor's salary. That's far too broad. A new proposal by Councilman Jack Benson would restrict the salary level to the "local market rate" for auditors. That's more reasonable.
These issues were brought up before the Aug. 2 balloting, but several council members had already decided, without much study, to favor the ordinance outline provided by auditor Stan Sewell and a few outside accountant advisers. Even now, council members Manny Rico and Deborah Scott fail to see that the ordinance failed the test of taxpayer justice, while giving Sewell a cushy lifetime sinecure.
It also established other arbitrary perks. For instance, it would allow the auditor's office to always occupy the third floor of City Hall, never mind future needs for the building. Basically, it gave Sewell everything he wanted, and lobbied for. That suits Sewell fine, but's not fair for city taxpayers. The City Council should approve a corrective ordinance for the November ballot, and persuade voters to adopt it.