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Elizabeth Pagano is the editor of the Austin Monitor.
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Thursday, December 17, 2015 by Elizabeth Pagano
Sunset proposal sparks power struggle at City Hall
Those well-versed in the language of passive aggression may have recognized City Council’s work session discussion about a new city departmental review process for what it was: a fight.
During Tuesday’s meeting, Mayor Steve Adler brought up the new Office of Performance Measurement, which was described in a memo from City Manager Marc Ott last week (embedded below). Adler raised several questions about the office on the City Council Message Board, which he pointed to on Tuesday. He also suggested forming a work group consisting of himself, Ott, Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo and City Auditor Corrie Stokes to take a look at how the proposed “sunsetting review” process should take place.
Council Member Ora Houston said she was “troubled and confused” by Adler’s plan. “I thought my role on this Council was to kind of set direction and policy and give that to the (city) manager to either execute or not,” said Houston. “I’m not sure why we as Council are getting so involved in something we’ve passed off to the manager.”
Adler said the he felt they had given the city manager “insufficient direction,” despite the fact that city management had moved forward with that direction since then. He explained, “We basically created a placeholder in my mind as to what it is that we wanted. But the question of whether or not it should be something that’s done in the manager’s office or in the auditor’s office isn’t something that could come from the manager. The auditor is a reportee to us, not to the manager.”
During the budget process, City Council allocated $500,000 to add a departmental review process. The money was added to the budget of the Financial Services Department, which is under the purview of the City Manager’s Office.
When Houston pressed the question, asking if Adler was proposing that the review process be moved to the Office of the City Auditor, Adler responded, “We are creating a function that doesn’t exist today. The question of whether it should be done in the auditor’s office is a question for the Council to decide.”
Ott clarified that his memo detailed “not a proposal, but what I intend to do,” and that he has already put that office in place, based on the budget process. As to whether he would object to the city auditor playing a role in the review process, Ott said, “I would not presume to interfere with Council’s prerogative to direct another appointed official. That is, as much as I’ve exercised my prerogative in responding to what I believe was direction I got from the Council, I certainly would not presume to interfere. … Beyond that, I believe that is a conversation between this Council and the city auditor.”
Ott said that he had responded to the direction he received as part of the budget process and that his role, in a more general sense, was to “carry out, administer and manage” the budget adopted by City Council. In terms of issues that would be addressed by the review process, he said, “obviously we look to you to give us that information and that guidance.”
In terms of whether he would participate in a work group, Ott said he would be happy to help Council refine the issues they were interested in studying through the Office of Performance Management.
“In fact,” said Ott, “whatever you decide, it would probably be my inclination to also evaluate it in the context of the Performance Review Office that I have just launched.”
Council Member Pio Renteria co-signed the implied idea that the new office could be used to evaluate City Council and its offices as well. “I think what we really need to do is look at our committee structure and whether we are really meeting our goals and if it’s really efficient,” he said.
Houston also questioned how this process, if controlled by the Office of the City Auditor, would be different from the audits that are already conducted on city departments and programs. “I don’t know the answer to that question,” said Adler, who noted that would be one of the things a work group could talk about.
Tovo said she had met with Stokes and that she understood it would be helpful to “really zero in” on how the proposed review process would differ from the existing audit process. Though Council Member Sheri Gallo said her inclination would be to move the process into the city auditor’s office in order to fund follow-up audits that “haven’t necessarily been given a priority,” and she hoped the review process could also track metrics of past city contracts.
Tovo disagreed with that point. “Our audit department does a very good job of scheduling those follow-up audits where they are appropriate. When you look at the audit plan, which the full Council approves, if you believe that some of those follow-up audits should be coming back to us sooner, than that’s an opportunity to reprioritize,” said Tovo. “It really isn’t an accurate statement to say there aren’t follow-up audits done.”
Gallo subsequently clarified that she thought the auditor “did a remarkable, amazing job,” but she was concerned that the office was limited by budget constraints, and she wanted to be sure that its budget was expanded along with any expansion in responsibilities.
“Well, we have $500,000 that we can choose to expend as we wish,” said Adler.
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