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Travis County welcomes new auditor

Wednesday, September 5, 2012 by Michael Kanin

The introduction of new Travis County Auditor Nicki Riley to members of the Travis County Commissioners Court on Tuesday was about as anti-climactic as it could have been.


The commissioners appeared to be evaluating how to interact with the County Auditor’s office and, as might have been expected, they revealed no lingering concerns from what had been the contentious final months and recent departure of longtime Travis County Auditor Susan Spataro.


For her part, Riley was somewhat cautious in talking with In Fact Daily after her introduction. Riley told us that a mass exodus of county auditor employees rumored to be coming in the wake of Spataro’s dismissal had yet to form. Riley told In Fact Daily that former Statutory Compliance Chief April Bacon had retired as of “last Friday” and that Chief Assistant County Auditor Mike Wichern remained on leave associated with the Family and Medical Leave Act. However, Riley reported that she “hadn’t seen” a mass exodus take shape “yet.”


“And I don’t expect it,” she added.


Riley also noted that the transition from Spataro’s leadership to hers was going “smoothly.”


In mid-August, district judges that oversee the Travis County Auditor’s Office declined to renew the employment contract of Spataro, who has held the position for more than 20 years (see In Fact Daily, Aug. 16, 2012). That kicked-off what turned out to be a rather quick search for her replacement, headed by Travis County District Civil Court Judge Tim Sulak.


The committee settled on Riley after just a few of weeks of deliberations. And the judges elected to promote her over immediate Spataro subordinates.


Riley’s salary will be $165,000 for the year that she is under contract, with her contract renewal in September 2013. On Tuesday, the Statesman reported that Riley was previously under the supervision of First Assistant County Auditor Diana Warner. Warner’s salary is listed at $164,000.


Commissioners had expressed support for Spataro during her dramatic exit, and there was a display support for Spataro among county employees. Retiring Budget Director Leroy Nellis – whose name had been mentioned as a possible interim replacement for Spataro – was the most publicly vocal representative of that faction. Nellis delivered an impassioned defense of Spataro at the public meeting where Travis County judges voted to dismiss her.


I can’t emphasize how important (the independence of) your county auditor is,” he told the judges. “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.”


After an executive session discussion about the new auditor and, presumably, her role in county government, Travis commissioners instructed their head of Planning and Budget Leslie Browder to meet with Riley to discuss a range of issues. “The idea, basically, is that we ought to reach some understanding about how we would divide (some financial) responsibilities (and) report back to court for us to consider and take appropriate action,” said County Judge Sam Biscoe.


Biscoe also suggested that performance measures and contract requirements related to the county’s new financial software program could be part of that discussion.


One criticism of Spataro was that she had compromised her effectiveness as an impartial evaluator by taking part in too many county decisions.

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