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Travis County judges vote to remove county auditor

Thursday, August 16, 2012 by Michael Kanin

After holding her position for more than 20 years, Susan Spataro will no longer serve as Travis County’s auditor.


In a public hearing on Wednesday, 15 Travis County district judges voted unanimously to remove the long-time auditor. Spataro will remain with the county through the end of August.


The judges immediately set to work on a future without Spataro by naming a committee to conduct a search for her replacement. Meanwhile, Spataro’s supporters – who cited the sound financial standing of the county – were left to wonder why she’d been removed.


Departing Travis County Budget Director Leroy Nellis served alongside Spataro for many years. Nellis cataloged a list of Spataro’s accomplishments and then he wondered about the impact of the judge’s decision to remove Spataro. “I can’t emphasize how important (the independence of) your county auditor is,” he said. “If, in fact, your future county auditor’s professional independence is challenged by any one – including y’all as their supervisors – you have serious problems.”


Travis County Commissioner Karen Huber worried that Spataro’s removal could compromise the county’s ongoing complicated switch to a new financial software system. “It is disappointing that the judges made this decision not being mindful of the … transition underway in the auditor’s office with regard to (the new system),” Huber told In Fact Daily. “You don’t take the conductor off the train with it going 80 miles an hour.”


Spataro’s pending departure is compounded because the county’s in-house supervisor of the software change is on leave and not expected to return to his position. When asked if she thought that a suitable replacement could be found, Spataro was not optimistic. “It’s a mess. This shouldn’t have happened in the first place. But it did, and we are where we are,” she said.


That discussion was part of an uncomfortable preview to Spataro’s undoing. Before deciding on her fate, the panel of district judges had to approve the Audit Department’s FY2013 budget. With that under way, Spataro was forced into the strange position of having to present a budget that most in attendance realized she wouldn’t be a part of.


The judges offered little insight during Wednesday’s meeting as to why they decided to part ways with Spataro.


“In our July 18 meeting, our audit committee made a recommendation not to reappoint Ms. Spataro as the auditor,” said District Judge Lora Livingston, who chaired Wednesday’s meeting. “That recommendation was discussed in some detail at that meeting and I don’t intend to rehash that meeting today.”


The formal move came on a motion from Judge Brenda Kennedy, who chairs the Audit Committee. Judge John Dietz seconded the motion.


Word around the county is that the judges may have been concerned about Spataro’s increasing role in county government that fell outside of her purview (see In Fact Daily, Aug. 14, 2012). County Judge Sam Biscoe told In Fact Daily that the court continued to assign Spataro to such efforts because she handled them well. “The more you do well, the more we’re going to ask you to do,” Biscoe said.


In the end however, Biscoe conceded that her immediate superiors – the district court judges – may have been concerned about that arrangement.


After the vote, Spataro took a few minutes to address the judges. She highlighted more than a handful of accomplishments, including the achievement and maintenance of the county’s  AAA bond rating and a hard-fought victory at the state level that resulted in a new method of accounting that allowed the county to eliminate millions in booked costs related to the health care of retirees. “The taxpayers have faired well by the performance of that office,” she said. “My employees and I can hold our heads up high, regardless of your actions today.”


Spataro declined any further comment after the hearing.


Biscoe defended Spataro’s work. “I felt she did an outstanding job as our county auditor,” he said. “Of course, she works for the district judges and not the Commissioners Court.”

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