Just two weeks ago, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake was dumping all over a bill requiring city agencies to be audited every two years, saying it was too expensive.
Today, at a Baltimore City Council hearing on the bill, the mayor sent down a letter to City Comptroller Joan Pratt saying that Pratt’s Department of Audits should conduct regular audits and should have a proposed schedule of planned audits in place “by the middle of this month.”
Bill sponsor Carl Stokes found the whole thing “weird.”
“At two hearings now, the mayor’s Finance Department has said, of my bill: ‘off-the-wall bad, not necessary, cost-prohibitive to do it and it shouldn’t be done,’” the District 12 councilman said, in a phone interview after the hearing.
“Now we have this letter that it can be done, that it’s a good government thing, but the Finance Department hasn’t changed its opinion of the bill that I know of.”
Advocates were trying to figure out whether the letter suggests a shift in the Mayor’s thinking on audits or just an attempt to shift the public focus to the office of the Comptroller. (This spring, the mayor increasingly was being criticized by radio call-in guests and Council members about Baltimore’s failure to conduct regular audits of city agencies.)
Stokes predicted, regardless, that as soon as Monday the Council will approve the idea in the form of a charter amendment that would place mandatory biennial audits on the November ballot. (Momentum for the idea grew earlier this year when it was revealed that many agencies have not been audited in decades.)
“This could mean people are acknowledging that audits need to happen a little more than every 30 years,” Stokes said.
First in Line: Recreation and Parks?
For budget hawks and opponents of the mayor’s recreation center privatization plan, the Recreation and Parks budget has been a sore point. Rawlings-Blake’s transition team recommended over two years ago that Rec and Parks get a full audit.
The mayor’s letter today singled out that agency:
“I would very much appreciate a review of municipal agencies that have not benefited from recent audits of financial transactions. In particular my transition team recommended that we request audit of financial transitions [we’re guessing this is a typo and she means transactions] of the Division of Capital Planning of the Department of Recreation and Parks.
I know that at my direction my department had previously expressed a desire for the department of audits to conduct such a review but that process and the city auditor’s response were not memorialized in writing. Therefore I make the request formally today.”
Making Audits More Regular
Even if Rec and Parks does finally get a thorough review of its books, some critics said, the story illustrates the value of codifying regular audits in the city charter.
“The fact that it has taken the Mayor nearly two-and-a-half years to get the Recreation and Parks audit underway, even after it was recommended to be done by her own transition committee, makes the point that audits of agencies must be a requirement of the government, and not a choice of a personality in the government,” said a former head of that department, Chris Delaporte.
Delaporte said the charter amendment would take the political pressure off the mayor to do or not to do an audit because it required the audits be conducted automatically, on a regular schedule by an independent outside auditor.
The mayor’s letter also says:
“Additional audits of the financial transactions of large municipal agencies not subject to recent reviews should be conducted on a routine basis as well. Such audits could be conducted in the order of significance and size, including General Services, Transportation, Fire, and other large agencies.”
Delaporte praised the bill for making sure that audits happen on a specified schedule – “not on peoples’ whims.”
“I think the mayor helped this along with her letter, and I, for one appreciate her willingness to get underway right now,” he said.