Don’t Anticipate Miracles From City Auditor General
After close to two decades of political football and dirty deeds, City of Windsor Council recently voted unanimously to hire an “independent” Auditor General.
Wonders never cease!
I can say that as a former City Councillor who was eye witness to the grisly demise of three top auditors — City Auditor Mike Dunbar, Lead Auditor Angela Berry, and Auditor General (AG) Todd Langlois, who was cut loose after a bizarre closed door Council meeting orchestrated by former Mayor Eddie Francis.
That was 2012, when Langlois sued the city for wrongful dismissal (I opposed the firing). Council has been haggling over the AG issue ever since. That is until September 23, when the current bunch decided to adopt a hybrid watchdog model, which apparently has been working for Markham, Ontario.
The operative word here is independent. Even the brave Councillor who made the decisive motion acknowledges there’s a hitch.
“We have to clarify independent,” pronounces rookie Ward 10 Councillor Jim Morrison, the retired bank manager who made the hiring of an AG a key plank in his 2018 election campaign
The model Council chose, after an exhaustive debate, is different than the one that failed in the past — which was an internal employee with an off-site office, and a small staff of city employees.
The new model sees the function of Auditor General outsourced to a public accounting firm, PriceWaterhouseCoopers (PWC), with a designated person from that firm appointed as Auditor General.
Conflict of interest? Just asking.
That person is Christopher O’Connor, who has managed the Windsor file from his London office. PWC has been doing internal audits for the city, directed by city administration, since 2013.
Morrison describes these high level audits as being “just too general and devoted to risk avoidance.” PWC reports quarterly to Council, and as I remember, they induce slumber.
“I will be looking for a higher level of independence.” ~ Councillor Jim Morrison
A disingenuous Mayor Drew Dilkens waived these piles of audits in front of prospective voters during debate on his campaign for re-election, claiming Council didn’t need an Auditor General.Now that it has a real one, Morrison says there will be a difference.
The Auditor General will map out his own work plan for the year and bring it to Council for approval in a public meeting. O’Connor can oversee his experienced PWC partners to carry out the plan and conceivably turn over a few rocks.
The AG will have the legislative powers to access all city records, and subpoena witnesses. Reportedly, the oath swearing option has never been used by the Auditor Generals at the four other cities in Ontario, excluding Toronto, who retain one. But, Morrison says simply the threat of being put under oath “can be scary to a lot of people.”
Heaven forbid, there could even be value for money audits of affiliated agencies like EnWin Utilities. This was on Langlois’ agenda before the Francis axe came down.
Council has always had the prerogative of ordering deep-dive, value for money audits on a department or agency, but has never cared to do so. It will be interesting to see if the fur flies should O’Connor call for one or more.
The annual cost of the Auditor General office and function has drawn skepticism since it has been rolled into the $300,000 the city now pays PWC annually for multiple internal audits. Dilkens used the bargain price as a lame reason to wiggle out of his long-held opposition to hiring an AG.
Taxpayers are left to wonder how watered down the entire audit package will be. Morrison retorts that it’s his intention to reduce the number of “vanilla” internal audits and ersatz quarterly reports to Council to devote more time to AG audits, hopefully with a bite to them.
Council voted to retain PWC for five more years, with the billing details to be negotiated with the firm by the time the current contract expires in April.
“There’s a danger to make it the same as what we’ve got,” he warns. “I will be looking for a higher level of independence.”
Morrison believes the new contract will end up costing more than $300,000 a year, but don’t expect breathtaking delays and fiascos such as occurred when Dunbar and Berry conducted audits on the construction of the 400 City Hall Square building and the Windsor Family Credit Union (WFCU) Arena.
The 400 building audit took well over a year to complete when administration very belatedly turned over 11 boxes of files. The city, the audit revealed, saved money on the WFCU budget by getting graveyard shift janitors to paint the interior walls.
Before that Dunbar used colourful language to describe his audit findings on the city’s fleet division, released in 2008 after a two year probe of records. It turned out that retired and even deceased workers possessed passwords providing access to the city’s fuel pumps.
The media had a field day with “dead men pumping gas.” Administration didn’t find these bon mots funny. Speculation remains that fear of embarrassment built up the resistance to hiring another AG, for so long.
Morrison concedes that an AG will not be spending a lot of time on bureaucratic pratfalls, such as putting the wrong name on the new Sandwich Public Library at a cost of $51,000, or installing fake synthetic ice on the Charles Clark Square rink, at a cost of $55,000.
He might be more interested scrutinizing why the library cost $5.5 million, more than twice the original estimate.
AG advocates at the September 23 meeting, bemoaned the spending of $750,000 to rebuild an antique trolley, $3 million on holiday lights in Jackson Park, construction of the money sapping Adventure Bay Family Water Park and the $50,000 annual gift to the “Detroit Grand Prix”.
Morrison makes it clear that an AG will not comment on the value of bonehead political legacy projects such as those. He told me he opposes the holiday lights and Grand Prix spending.
“It should be noted that the Municipal Act does not provide the same nature of independence for a municipal Auditor General as is the case of the provincial and federal Auditors General,” the September 23 Council report declared.
Morrison is an earnest, common sense man and deserves credit for navigating political minefields to gain approval for his motion. What remains to be seen is whether the exercise will turn out to be smoke and mirrors.