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Watchdog digs in 

City auditor takes on a dicey slate: IT, fleet, lawyers, Utilities, C4C

Next year will bring an ambitious and controversial slate of work for the City Auditor's Office. But taxpayers might not be privy to detailed findings, unless a City Council committee changes its policy for how Auditor Denny Nester reports his investigations.

That's important because the Auditor's Office is the only tool City Council has to keep tabs on how money is spent, according to Randy Purvis, who served on Council under the council-city manager form of government from 1987 to 1999 and from 2003 to 2011. And while the auditor answers only to Council, the people who work for him are subject to termination by the mayor — a sticky issue that might be headed for the April city election ballot.

The Auditor's Office has made headlines and triggered changes in the past. In 2007, after the auditor received a hotline tip about a Colorado Springs Utilities billing error, longtime Utilities cashier Donna Inzer was sentenced to 90 days in jail and 14 years probation for embezzling $435,000 over three-plus years.

The hotline (385-2387) has drawn dozens of other calls in recent years, Nester says. One call resulted in termination of a Springs Utilities supervisor, who a tipster said showed up mornings, then went home for the day and returned at quitting time.

Earlier this year, the auditor found multiple problems in the city IT department that put city information at risk. That's one reason that IT upgrades got the attention of the Audit Committee, which ordered an audit for next year.

Formed about 18 months ago, the committee is composed of Councilors Jan Martin, Merv Bennett and Andy Pico, and three outside experts: a banker, a CPA and a U.S. Olympic Committee auditor.

Other audits on tap in the next year or two include a look at the multi-year fleet maintenance contract with Serco, which marks its first full year on Jan. 1; the use of outside legal counsel, which has cost the city millions of dollars in the last three years; an examination of internal controls used by the Colorado Springs Urban Renewal Authority, the agency through which money will flow to fund City for Champions projects; and pollution control equipment on the city's coal plants, notably the Neumann Systems Group's coal-"scrubbing" invention.

It would be nice to know details from those audits, but the public might be frozen out.

Earlier this year, the committee told Nester to report audits in one-page summaries. Such reports used to run more than 20 pages, with ample facts and findings. Purvis argues that one-page reports "by their nature cannot say anything"; Nester says the idea was to relieve auditors from writing long reports, so they could perform more audits.

Asked about the issue, Martin says, "If we were ever to find anything that had been intentionally covered up, we would go back to the old way."

Meanwhile, citizens are blocked from finding out more because all audit back-up materials are considered "work product," exempt from disclosure under the Colorado Open Records Act.

"We're just looking for efficiencies," Martin says. "Maybe we can find a way to meet the needs of both." She says she'll raise the issue at the committee's Thursday meeting, adding that it might make sense to require full reports on special audits, such as the one about fleet management.

Then there's the lingering problem of auditor employees not being independent from the administration they audit. Martin says Council will consider a measure for the April 7 city ballot that would give Council, not the mayor, authority over Council employees. (The issue arose after Mayor Steve Bach fired a Council legislative aide, George Culpepper, without Council input in January.) Adding auditor staff to Council's purview would reduce fear of retaliation, Martin says, and may be part of the ballot measure in April.

For his part, Purvis would like to see the auditor become an elected position, as it is in some other cities, including Denver.

"This is an office that can be and should be much more in the news. It's a watchdog agency," he says. "Having an elected auditor would help. Then the auditor is not answering to Council, and it doesn't have to please the mayor."

Martin isn't ready to support making the auditor an elected position, but concedes that having either Council or the mayor oversee the office brings politics into the mix.

  • City auditor takes on a dicey slate: IT, fleet, lawyers, Utilities, C4C

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