Down for the Count
A feud between the mayor and comptroller keeps Baltimore’s agencies unaudited
Published: July 4, 2012
It’s not dead yet.
Despite news reports of its demise, a controversial audit bill was sent back to committee last week by City Council members who say they really want more audits of city government—they just don’t want to amend the city’s charter to get them.
They say this even though city legal officials have already explained that the council cannot compel an audit schedule without amending the charter, which specifies that only the comptroller schedules them “at appropriate intervals.”
“We need to work with the audit department we have now,” Councilman William Cole (11th District) says. “Simply throwing a charter amendment out there just creates the appearance that we’re solving the problem.”
“My intention was not to put on the ballot a question that people will not understand,” Councilwoman Rochelle “Rikki” Spector (5th District) says.
The vote is widely seen to have come because of pressure from Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. Chris Delaporte, a former director of the city’s Recreation and Parks who has been working for months on the audit bill, criticized the mayor in a statement hours after the vote.
“If she has courage, she still has time to reverse this mess she has created for herself, but I have seen no evidence that she wants to do any audits that cover all 55 agencies, boards, and departments, every two years, and paid for with general revenue funds,” he said. “Those three things would have been mandated in the charter change.”
Some of the city’s departments have not been audited in 40 years, according to Councilman Carl Stokes (12th District), the bill’s lead sponsor. He was stunned on June 25, when the council voted, 8-7, not to advance the bill.
Cole moved to save the bill, entitled “Biennial Agency Audits,” by sending it back to committee. The vote was 14-1, but Spector, who voted against, says she was confused and meant to vote in favor of sending it back to the council’s Judiciary and Legislative Investigations Committee.
The bill has gone through many twists since its introduction in March, when it was styled as an ordinance that would require an audit of every city agency every other year. The bill grew out of Stokes’ frustration with his inability to get an audit of the Department of Recreation and Parks as recommended three years ago by the mayor’s transition team. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake was lukewarm to the idea at best, according to insiders. Then the bill was amended to become a ballot question. Mayoral spokesman Ryan O’Doherty said Rawlings-Blake is in favor of more audits and released a letter saying Comptroller Joan Pratt should conduct them on “a routine basis.”
Pratt responded on June 12 with a testy open letter to Rawlings-Blake, criticizing her for under-funding the Comptroller’s office. Pratt said she had 52 funded auditor positions in 1995, and only 39 this year. Pratt asked for 42 positions in the upcoming budget but got only 39 from Rawlings-Blake. She says she is forced to underpay auditors as well and so cannot recruit qualified applicants.
The next day, Pratt stood up at a meeting of the Board of Estimates and accused Rawlings-Blake of entering into an illegal $659,000 no-bid contract for computer-network-based video telephones. Pratt claims dominion over the city’s communications systems. That feud has smoldered ever since, with City Solicitor George Nilson, a Rawlings-Blake appointee, opining that the contract is legal, and Pratt insisting that it is not. Neither Pratt’s nor Rawlings-Blake’s office have responded to City Paper’s requests for interviews.
Council members have cited the cost of more audits as a potential problem. Budget director Andrew Kleine put the figure at $1 million, minimum, in a May memo.
Because many city agencies have not been audited comprehensively in decades, they do not keep their financial records in a readily auditable form, says Cole: “The agencies themselves are in some ways going to have to restructure internally so they can be responsive to an auditor.”
But, he says, the city’s “outcome-based budgeting system” assures taxpayers that expenses can’t be easily hidden in those agencies.
“There’s oversight for every department,” Spector says, promising to draft a resolution calling on the city’s Bureau of Audits to develop a policy of written “best practices.”
Stokes has said that regular audits of government agencies are standard fare in other cities—and he is right. That Baltimore is having a fierce debate on the subject marks the city as a laughingstock.
Auditors in other cities say they do audits much more frequently than Baltimore, but do not keep a strict schedule.
“Our city does not have a rotating schedule for audits, but bases our schedule on risk—so a riskier area may be audited more often than a non-risky area, which may or may not be audited at all,” says Drummond Kahn, Director of Audit Services for Portland, Ore., and president of the Association of Local Government Auditors. His office has 12 full-time auditors to scrutinize the doings of 8,000 government employees in a city roughly Baltimore’s size.
In January, the Association of Local Government Auditors reviewed Baltimore’s audit functions and concluded that the city’s system is not sufficiently politically independent, in part because all audits go first to the Board of Estimates, a political board controlled by the mayor.
“We recommend that the City Auditor’s reporting be free of [political] impairments,” the Association wrote in its January report.
For his part, Cole says the bill may still have a chance: “I’m hoping that, by the time we meet in July, we’ll have some kind of compromise.”
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