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Citizen petition demands city audit

Tuesday, June 26, 2018 by Jack Craver

This article has been updated. A spokesperson for Council Member Ellen Troxclair said that the proposed audit ordinance is not on the agenda for the next City Council meeting because one of the initial co-sponsors of the proposal withdrew support.

A politically diverse group of activists is behind an effort to force the city of Austin to submit to a comprehensive audit of its operations.

A crew of signature-gatherers has been out and about, showing up at public gatherings or standing outside of public buildings, asking whoever passes by to add their signature to a petition to put the measure on the November ballot.

Many of those backing the move were also behind the petition to force a citizen vote on CodeNEXT that is currently being litigated in court. For instance: Fred Lewis, the attorney who has long been involved in efforts to reform city campaign finance and ethics rules; Bill Bunch, the head of the Save Our Springs Alliance; and Nelson Linder, the head of the Austin NAACP.

However, the coalition backing the audit is far from a carbon copy of the anti-CodeNEXT brigade.

It also boasts support from conservative-leaning groups and figures, such as the Travis County Taxpayers Union and City Council’s lone Republican, Council Member Ellen Troxclair. Michael Searle, who until recently was an aide for Troxclair, is heading a political action committee in support of the effort: Citizens for an Accountable Austin.

Searle says that the petition has already gathered 17,000 signatures, 3,000 short of what is needed to put the measure before voters.

However, Troxclair says that Council should simply approve the proposed language on the petition, thereby saving people the trouble of having to enact the ordinance via referendum.

In a message to colleagues on the City Council Message Board, Troxclair urged them to support the measure at their Thursday meeting, which will be the last time they convene before Aug. 9.

“Municipalities across the country are using independent, third-party efficiency audits to help their governments provide more services while managing costs,” she said.

At the time, Troxclair said her item had three co-sponsors –– Council members Alison Alter, Ora Houston and Leslie Pool –– the minimum necessary to get an item on the Council agenda. However, on Tuesday an aide to Troxclair said that one of the three had withdrawn as a co-sponsor, so Council will not take up the proposal after all, at least not until a later date.

The city already conducts a yearly financial audit as well as ad hoc audits of various departments or programs, such as the recent audit of homelessness services. However, explained Searle, “The city does not do a comprehensive efficiency study of all city departments, utilities and programs.”

If the new ordinance is approved, the city will select an outside firm through a competitive bidding process to conduct the audit. Searle would not estimate how much that might cost, but argued the savings achieved as a result would far exceed the expense.

“Based on review of the literature and where these efficiency studies have been done across the country, we expect the return-on-investment to be high,” said Searle in an email. “Even with 4% annual savings, which is the low end of what could be identified, we are talking about $160 (million).”

He added: “Without undergoing this review, the public and the Council do not have the information they need to understand the necessary trade-offs they could make in order to substantially address Austin’s most pressing issues. The question for me is, do we want the information/data or not? If we want to know what the opportunities are, this tool can help our community make significant investments that have maximum impact.”

Photo by New Zealand Tertiary Education Union from New Zealand [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

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