For months now, San Diego City Hall has been engaged in a debate over how to improve its internal financial controls. You might recall that the City Council and some of the city's top bureaucrats got themselves in hot water with the feds a few years back because they issued false financial reports and misled bond investors. Well, city officials are still trying to fix the internal structure that allowed all that to happen.
One of the problems was that the city auditor, whose job is basically to make sure City Hall is operating on the up-and-up, wasn't sufficiently independent from the city's finance bureaucracy. Well, after six months' worth of public debate over how the auditor should be hired, managed and fired, and after several weeks' worth of stalemated public hearings, the City Council finally voted Monday to ask voters to allow the mayor to appoint the city auditor, as long as the auditor reports to an audit committee and can be fired only by the City Council. (City law requires voter approval of such a structural change.)
City Council members who voted yes hailed the decision as a grand compromise and a paragon of good-government checks and balances. Famously inarticulate Councilmember Ben Hueso (who coined another new word: “betrothen”—we think he meant “beholden”) said the auditor should be right smack in the middle, politically speaking, between the City Council and the mayor. Councilmember Toni Atkins agreed, and she and Hueso suggested that such a scenario is part and parcel of the public's 2004 endorsement of an executive-mayor form of governance: the people want an accountable mayor, so he should have full control, they seem to be saying. All of that, of course, is absolute bunk.
They seem to believe that the auditor should be as independent from the legislative branch of government (the City Council) as it is from the executive branch (the mayor). We challenge them to produce any professional opinion that supports such a sentiment. An auditor is a check on executive power. The executive, not the legislature, has control of the finance machinery. And just because the mayor is accountable to the public doesn't mean you should deprive the public of one of the few ways it can actually take account of the mayor's performance. That's just dippy.
Atkins added that she might have voted differently had Andrea Tevlin, the City Council's independent budget analyst, not endorsed the recommendation that the mayor be allowed to appoint the auditor. So, what about Tevlin? Her written reports on the matter go on and on about the importance of the auditor's independence from management (the mayor). They say nothing about independence from the legislature. However, since the recommendation has the auditor hired to a 10-year term and fired only with a two-thirds vote of the City Council, it provides sufficient independence, Tevlin reasons. Weirdly, her reports leap inexplicably to the conclusion that the best option is executive appointment of the auditor, despite her stated opinion that when creating an audit structure, the city “must ensure that the risk of undue influence, either real or perceived... should be minimized or eliminated” and that “the greatest risk of undue influence stems from City management....”
The mayor can't unilaterally fire the auditor under the scenario endorsed by the City Council, and we realize how that provides some level of protection (even though the mayor gets to play a part in selecting members of the audit committee, which recommends termination of the auditor—see how slippery this is?), but since everyone agrees that the auditor should be independent from the mayor, and since no one can offer support for the argument that the auditor should be independent from the City Council, why on earth wouldn't the City Council eliminate any risk of undue influence, either real or perceived, from management?
The likely answer is that the City Council—actually, just the five members who voted yes on Monday (Atkins, Hueso, Jim Madaffer, Kevin Faulconer and Council President Scott Peters)—are afraid of the alternative: a ballot measure threatened by a private citizens group known as San Diegans for City Hall Reform. Composed of supporters of Mayor Jerry Sanders, the group advocates for even greater mayoral control of the audit structure—and everything else under the perfect San Diego sun. Able to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars, the group could have waged a campaign pitting a relatively popular mayor against a relatively unpopular City Council, the bunch that has been deemed negligent and incompetent, if not dishonest and corrupt, in its financial responsibilities.
It's perhaps a good reason to be cowardly. But now it's also the reason the City Council just opted to “fix” a problem by recreating it. That's the opinion of City Councilmembers Donna Frye and Tony Young and City Attorney Mike Aguirre, and they're absolutely right.
How embarrassing it must be to be a member of the San Diego City Council today.
Got something to say? E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.