published Friday, July 27th, 2012

Debate over independent Chattanooga auditor blazes


by Cliff Hightower

EARLY VOTING

Voters may cast ballots through Saturday at the following locations in Hamilton County:

•Brainerd Recreation Center, 1010 N. Moore Road; Eastwood Church, 4300 Ooltewah-Ringgold Road; Northgate Mall, entrance at former Shanes Rib Shack/Pizza Hut next to Belk; from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. today and Saturday.

•Hamilton County Election Commission, 700 River Terminal Road, from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. today and 9 a.m. to 7 p.m Saturday.

Source: Hamilton County Election Commission

An informal campaign to establish an independent Chattanooga auditor may not be following election laws.

No one is certain whether supporters of a city referendum to create the position must disclose their finances to the Hamilton County Election Commission.

"I'm unaware of anyone violating the law," said City Auditor Stan Sewell, who would step into the independent auditor position if voters approve the referendum.

But Councilman Peter Murphy, who is against the referendum, said he doesn't buy that a group of people can randomly create a website, send out mailers and post campaign signs without some type of organizing.

"I think it's very ironic that what appears to be a coordinated campaign that is trying to have open transparency will not disclose their own finances," Murphy said.

Sewell said no one he knows has collected money or had any meetings as a group. Anyone who has talked to him about spending money, he told them to do it individually, he said, but he would not disclose any names.

Sewell, who now reports directly to the mayor's office, acknowledged that he has spent a minimal amount of his own time and money on the referendum campaign.

Even the executive director of the state's Bureau of Ethics and Campaign Finance and the administrator of elections for the Hamilton County Election Commission have differing views on whether the audit referendum supporters need to register their group.

Drew Rawlins, director for the state's Bureau of Ethics and Campaign Finance, said individuals can spend money, but if they are operating as a group, they must file financial papers.

"If there's more than one person, they should have registered," he said.

But Hamilton County Administrator of Elections Charlotte Mullis-Morgan said Thursday she sees no evidence of the supporters acting as a group, so she would not ask them to turn in financial disclosures.

What it does

The City Council approved an ordinance last year that would put the independent city auditor referendum on the Aug. 2 election ballot.

The City Council also has its own auditor and both are directed by an independent audit committee set up almost three years ago. The five-member committee is made up of certified public accountants approved by the council.

The plan is for the independent auditor to replace both the current city auditor position and the council's auditor.

Under the proposed ordinance, the independent auditor could only be fired by a super majority of the five-person audit committee and a simple majority of the council. The audit committee also establishes the auditor's pay, using market data to determine a salary.

Sewell said this week that having the super majority and the council as buffers would ensure the auditor can do his job effectively, free of politics.

"It allows for termination, but it doesn't allow for termination if someone is upset," he said.

He also said the audit committee sets the pay to make sure the auditor receives a fair salary and comparable cities would be used.

"They're not going to say Los Angeles is comparable to Chattanooga," he said.

Murphy doesn't see it that way. He said he thought the ordinance created the most protected office within the city and gives the auditor a "job for life."

Councilman Jack Benson agreed. "He has more job security than the Pope in Rome," Benson said.

Still, Benson voted to place the referendum on the ballot, saying he wanted voters to decide if they wanted the position.

But when he went to the polls for early voting this week, "I voted against it when I voted," he said.

Dennis Dycus, former director of the state's Division of Municipal Audit, said other cities across Tennessee have similar independent auditors. Memphis, Nashville, Knoxville and Clarksville all have independent auditors, he said.

They all also have audit committees with certified public accountants, he said.

"The only reason anyone would oppose this is if they don't understand it or they have a political agenda," he said.

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