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Austin Water official resigns under cloud

Tuesday, January 17, 2017 by Jo Clifton

The program manager for Austin Water’s Public Information & Marketing Office resigned in late December after an investigation by the Office of the City Auditor concluded that he had accepted a gift or favor from a city contractor and wasted city money in payments to that contractor.

Auditors found that the employee, Jason Hill, “asked a city vendor to assist him in building a website related to his secondary employment” as a real estate agent.

Registration data from Hill’s real estate website showed that an employee of the vendor was listed as the “registrant,” “admin” and “tech” contact for that site, auditors reported. Hill told the auditors that he had paid the registration fees for himself, but then failed to provide any evidence despite repeated requests, the audit said.

Hill’s supervisor, Kevin Buchman, told auditors that he was not aware of the relationship between Hill and the contractor.

The audit also found that under Hill, “Austin Water’s Public Information & Marketing Office used city resources in a grossly uneconomical way for advertising services” with the same city vendor from whom Hill had received assistance with his website.

The utility’s marketing office “hired the vendor to provide advertising for Austin Water on seven website addresses owned by the vendor. Between July 2013 and October 2016, the city paid the vendor approximately $67,000 for this service. During this time, the city’s website analytics show that visitors clicked on an Austin Water ad on one of the vendor’s websites and were directed to an Austin Water website in only 55 instances,” according to the audit.

“When comparing this ‘cost per click’ with other advertisement options engaged in by the city, the amount appears grossly uneconomical. Broken down, this is a cost of over $1,200 per click,” auditors noted. This cost compares unfavorably with the costs of advertising by a different city department not named in the audit, which reported that their online advertising costs ranged from $.87 per click to $6.65.

During an interview with auditors, Hill stated that the Public Information & Marketing Office does not ask for or look at the kind of analytics described above when determining whether to advertise with this particular contractor.

According to the audit, Hill’s supervisor told auditors that Hill “is responsible for the ‘heavy lifting’ of Austin Water’s advertising, including proposing an initial list of potential vendors and verifying that they receive an appropriate return on their expenditures.” Auditors noted that unlike other city purchases, advertising is exempt from city and state competitive bidding requirements.

Buchman approves vendor invoices but told auditors he “wasn’t very familiar” with the vendor in question. In fact, when pressed on how he knows that people are going to the vendor’s websites, Buchman stated, “I’m not sure that I have an answer for you.”

Hill denied any wrongdoing in a letter to Nathan Wiebe, chief of the auditor’s integrity unit. In that letter, Hill said the accusations against him “are exaggerated and biased.”

Hill explained that his relationship with the person who helped him with the website started before he began working for the city and “had nothing to do with any vendor status.”

He added, “This expert decided with his own free will to pass along to me some basic aspects and nuances of website building. No money, promises or expectations were exchanged, and there was zero impact to the city, utility or any of its stakeholders or customers.”

Hill also asserted that the utility’s public information office “stands by the three-year $67,000 investment for digital advertising with the vendor in question.” That claim, along with the rest of Hill’s response to Wiebe, was written on Austin Water letterhead.

Neither that assertion nor the use of the letterhead set well with Austin Water Director Greg Meszaros. In his response to the investigation report, Meszaros wrote, “I want to be clear that it was inappropriate for Mr. Hill to use our official letterhead to respond to the investigation and his response is solely his personal opinion and not reflective of Austin Water’s perspective on the findings contained in your investigation. For the record, I want to add that subsequent to the issuance of your draft investigation report, Mr. Hill resigned from the utility effective January 6, 2017.”

Meszaros also stated that the utility would undertake “a comprehensive review of all marketing and advertising activities undertaken by Austin Water and a strengthening of controls and cost effectiveness of these programs.”

Austin Water Assistant Director Daryl Slusher told the Austin Monitor that the utility is no longer making payments to the vendor. He said they stopped making those payments last fall when they became aware of the alleged waste through conversations with the auditors.

As for Buchman, Slusher said, “We’re determining the appropriate action on that and will take that soon.”

Buchman and Hill were the subject of a previous audit last fall that concluded that Buchman had inappropriately received a favor from Hill and that both had used city resources to work on their noncity employment.

Photo by WhisperToMe (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

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