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Should the auditor’s office be exempt from municipal civil service?

Monday, March 19, 2018 by Jessi Devenyns

Having an independent auditor’s office is integral to running a city where checks and balances fulfill their intended function. Independence, however, is not always easy to maintain, and in Austin, the Office of the City Auditor is working to balance its autonomy with still allowing its employees access to city-based benefits.

On March 5, Jason Hadavi, deputy city auditor, came to the Charter Review Commission to request that the city charter article IX be amended so that the Office of the City Auditor could be “added to the list of employees excluded from municipal civil service.” This year, the city auditor’s office is planning on conducting an audit of the Human Resources Department, and if Hadavi’s staff retained its civil service designation, “this would be completely off the table because we wouldn’t be independent,” he explained.

Hadavi explained that it was essential to his office’s investigative independence that he convert his 23-person staff into at-will employees. All clerical and administrative employees in the auditor’s office would remain protected by the municipal civil service classification.

Jason Hadavi outlined the current situation. “We’re very uncomfortable with the fact that portions of the city are untouchable,” he explained.

Carol Guthrie with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the entity that originally designed the municipal civil service rules, protested that it was unthinkable to remove city employees from civil service. “When we designed the rules the auditor was there, the department directors were there,” she said.

Hadavi acknowledged that although he attended those meetings, he did not express any concern about auditor’s office employees having civil service protection because “there was no ability for us to discuss not being civil service at that point.”

Voters amended the charter to include the rules in 2012, and on Oct. 27, 2014, the rules were adopted.

Nevertheless, Hadavi told the Austin Monitor that he has always been concerned that the city gave his employees this designation.

Guthrie stated that as the charter stands, she did not see any incongruities. “I believe they can retain their objectivity in carrying out their task that they are paid to carry out,” she said.

She noted that she had been approached by several employees from the auditor’s office who were concerned about having their status removed.

Hadavi told the Monitor that he was unaware of any internal concerns after the office made the recent announcement to staff that it was seeking at-will employee status for everyone. He emphasized that the goal is to remove any potential conflicts with auditing the city. “The intention is not so we have at-will employees and don’t have to deal with this,” he said.

Commissioner Fred Lewis inquired why the auditor’s office couldn’t contract out the planned Human Resources audit.

Hadavi explained that although that is an option, it can be cost prohibitive. He noted that external contractors can also slow down an audit because they need to first do background research before they can even begin.

Commissioner Ingrid Weigand agreed with Hadavi’s assessment of hiring outside help to solve this issue. She explained that after 20 years of employment with the city, she has noticed that “typically the internal staff does 50 percent of the work” when an external contractor is hired. “I would reserve outside agencies for serious, serious flaws,” she said.

Although he understood the requirement for independence and sympathized with Hadavi’s view that the current civil service designation is a conflict of interest, Lewis explained that it would be a “slippery slope” to start exempting people from municipal civil service.

Hadavi didn’t disagree. “I wouldn’t randomly start accepting people (for exemption) … for not really well-scrutinized reasons,” he said.

The commission tabled the discussion, and Guthrie promised to return next week with a drafted compromise on how to address the auditor’s office requirement for independence while allowing the employees to maintain their protected designation.

Commissioners Karl-Thomas Musselman and Matt Hersh were absent from the discussion.

Photo by John Flynn.

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