Role of city auditor debated
By Treena Shapiro
Advertiser Staff Writer
Less than a month after the City Council appointed Les Tanaka as the new city auditor, council members have proposed several areas for him to investigate, calling into question exactly what his responsibilities should be.
Now he worries that the council members have too proprietary an attitude toward the new auditor as they toss out ideas of what he should audit.
"I think it's appropriate that the council expresses its desire for certain programs to be audited, but at the same time everybody needs to be reminded that the office is not an arm of the council," Yoshimura said.
The city auditor's position was created when voters approved a city charter amendment last year. Tanaka started the $96,000-a-year job July 1. His term is for six years.
Tanaka's office staff is himself and one other auditor. He has the money to hire one more. Two staff members working full-time would be able to conduct one audit every four to six months, he said. Ideally, he would like to see 10 auditors working for the city. The state, by comparison, has 26.
More auditors would require a substantial increase in the office's $670,348 budget, especially since Tanaka points out that half of the money pays for an outside audit of the city finances.
As council members suggest that the auditor look into the budget process, the city refuse system and the Liquor Commission, Yoshimura said he thinks council members are making suggestions "thinking that he has some responsibility to follow up, and he does not."
However, Yoshimura approves of a resolution before the council, which asks the auditor to review the economy and efficiency of eight city agencies that are paid for by general or highway appropriations. Requests are appropriate, directives are not, he explained.
The resolution was introduced by Council Budget Chairwoman Ann Kobayashi and signed by five other members, and will be taken up Thursday by the Executive Matters Committee.
To Tanaka, taking the council's suggestions is part of the job. The former state deputy auditor under Marion Higa noted that 60 percent of the state's audits come from the Legislature. He expects that much of his work will be channeled to him from a council audit committee.
But he anticipates being able to initiate his own audits in time. "I think they're letting me be independent. It's just that with a small staff right now, I can't take on self-initiated audits," he said.
Auditing eight executive departments by March 1, as requested in the council resolution, is probably not feasible. Narrowing the scope of the audits and looking at fewer agencies is a more tangible goal, as Tanaka will tell the council members when they discuss the resolution in committee. "I will be there to help them shape it into something more reasonable," he said.
For example, the resolution calls for "a review of the economy and efficiency of the activities of major executive departments" to identify areas where the council can reduce funding during the next budget cycle.
Tanaka said the focus could be narrowed to looking expenditures as opposed to appropriations, determining whether the city agencies are accomplishing their missions, assessing the management controls over personnel, or examining the need for contract hires or consultants.
One idea for a review that has been making its way through city hall has been the hiring of former council members Yoshimura, who has a six-month contract with the Board of Water Supply, and Steve Holmes, who has been appointed to a $70,000-a-year post in the managing director's office.
But even Councilman Charles Djou, who has questioned Holmes' appointment during the budget cycle, said other issues take priority, such as an audit of the troubled Liquor Commission.
Djou is in favor of giving Tanaka more guidance about what he should pursue first. During his time as a state representative, he noticed that the Legislature sends many requests to Higa each year, but she only has time to perform about one-tenth of requested audits.
"We would like a more coherent process to instruct the auditor what to look for," Djou said.
While there is nothing wrong with a blanket request like Kobayashi's, the scope is too wide to be very helpful, he said.
Djou agreed with Yoshimura that the auditor should be independent, but stressed independence from the mayor, rather than the council. An auditor who reports to the council would make honest, unbiased reports about the administration, as well as investigate the council, he said.
"I think this is all a good thing, the greater transparency you have in government, the better," he said. "We need a lot of work to restore the public's trust and confidence in Honolulu Hale."