Bremerton’s independent auditor position is safe for now.
Following a 5-4 vote of the city council, which followed months of discussions, voters will not weigh in this fall on a proposed charter amendment stripping the auditor of his or her independence from the council and mayor’s office.
Council member Jim McDonald, who introduced the measure and offered an impassioned plea to his colleagues to support it, voted in favor along with Greg Wheeler, Faye Flemister and Wendy Priest.
McDonald, who is halfway through his fourth year on the council and served on the audit committee last year, said that the auditor position is too costly, at about $170,000 per year, and doesn’t have any built-in accountability because of the independent nature of the job.
“The position isn’t accountable to the council or the mayor’s office and there is currently no day-to-day oversight of the position,” he said. “From a management perspective, that’s just a structurally flawed system when you don’t have any oversight of someone like that.”
McDonald noted that only Seattle, whose auditor reports to city council, and Bremerton have internal auditors in the state of Washington. Spokane used to have one, but chose to eliminate the position when its budget got tight.
“When we were cutting police positions, and cutting the fire department and our parks department, we didn’t have the opportunity to go look at, ‘Gee where does the auditor fit into this thing?’ “
McDonald said that since the auditor position is part of the city charter, there was no chance to tinker with it when times were tough.
“If that would have been out there, I would have thought really hard about whether I wanted a policeman out on the street or an auditor in the office,” he said, noting that the state already provides, and charges for, independent audits.
But council members Eric Younger, Carol Arends, Adam Brockus, Nick Wofford and Leslie Daugs voted against the measure. Several residents also spoke out against changing the auditor’s role.
Bremerton resident Bob Dollar, who has served on the city’s audit committee for three years, spoke in favor of keeping things the way they are.
The audit committee is made up of the auditor, a certified public accountant, two council members and two residents along with one alternate.
“All you guys wanna do is take another voice away from the citizens, another committee that we can actually use that represents the citizens, not the council,” Dollar said. “The council is the one that’s failed this city and the committee because you do not act on what’s brought forward to you.”
Susan Brown, whose husband has served on the committee, said the experience for him was enlightening and encouraging.
“What he saw was truly democracy in action; everybody using their really wide variety of knowledge and insight to be able to give direction to the auditor.”
Brown said her husband’s main concern regarding prior audit reports was, “Why isn’t the rest of the city responding to this. He did not understand why it seemed like it was just put under the table.”
“There was one mayor that was quite irritated by the auditor and wanted to get rid of the position and tried to get rid of that position,” Brown added. “You know what goes through my mind when I see that happen in the leadership, I want to know why: what has the auditor found that needed to be fixed that (a mayor or council) didn’t want to address?”
Council member Daugs also spoke against tinkering with the auditor position.
“I think a city auditor is important for a city because it shows areas of improvement,” she said. “It shows areas where we can save money and it shows transparency to our citizens.”
But council member Flemister said that she favored putting a charter amendment on the ballot because it actually allows for more transparency.
“The citizens should be given the opportunity to tell us what they want,” she said.
Council member Younger was seen as the swing vote on the council when it came to the auditor vote being considered for a charter amendment. He said he wasn’t sure how he would vote as a citizen if a charter amendment was on the ballot, but he voted against placing it there.
Before voting, Younger made sure that the auditor position does not have to be a full-time position under the charter which he said was a deciding factor since savings could be realized without changing language voters approved in 1983.
Younger acknowledged that some of the language in the charter may be a little cumbersome, but any changes should be considered very carefully.
“By changing this language, it does imply that we’re removing involvement of our citizens because right now there’s three citizens on the audit committee,” he said.
Younger also cited at least one other reason for his vote.
“Even if the auditor is not finding all kinds of waste, fraud and abuse, there is something to be said that he’s serving as a deterrent to prevent that from happening in the first place,” he said.