Palo Alto’s charter requires an auditor as one the four city-council-appointed officers. Most, if not all, cities have auditors, as does the state. The role of auditor in this town has changed over the years and now, in my estimation, the city, in choosing an auditor, has, in turn, diminished the role of that person.
I am talking about this because last Monday night, the Palo Alto City Council unanimously again chose the Baker Tilly US firm in Chicago and designate one of its consultants, Adriane McCoy, who had temporarily filled the spot since September, as permanent auditor until June 2025 when the firm’s contract expires. The firm’s previous auditor for this city resigned last August.
The switch to an outside firm began in 2020, so this is only the third year of this new way of auditing the city from outside. Baker Tilly has a $3.4 million five-year contract with the city, so the cost of an auditor is about $700,000 a year.
The choice to continue using an outside firm to monitor this city’s practices is disconcerting to me.
Palo Alto had its own permanent auditors who had a staff and offices at City Hall.
McCoy works out of Chicago from, I believe, her home office. Since McCoy took over last year, she visited the city two or three times, mostly to address the council and discuss her reports.
By law, audit reports are public. That’s because residents need to know the findings and read the reports (available to the press) on just how this city is working – or not working --as can be the case.
Baker Tilly has contracts with many cities. Part of its auditing philosophy is to compare and contrast different city practices and policies – like hiring principles, or budgetary controls, or personnel issues. Its primary focus is financial matters.
A former Palo Alto in-house auditor who I have much admired was Sharon Erickson, who left to become San Jose’s highly praised auditor. She wrote frequent reports for the public on problems in the city –like delays in building permits or airport issues or the effectiveness of a certain departments in the city.
She knew what was going on in town daily, read the local newspapers, followed council meetings, walked around city hall a lot, got to know employees, who trusted her confidence skills, and often they would privately tell her problem s that they saw in their departments. Erickson would investigate and find what was true and what was incorrect about what some employees told her. She reported to council routinely.
So why am I upset about Baker Tilly? Absolutely nothing personal and it is not that they are doing a bad job, but rather their focus seems to be money and budgeting issues, all well and good, but there’s more that residents (like me) may want.
This year they are working on the effect of employees working at home, a wonderful topic that many employers nationwide are wondering about, certainly not an issue unique to Palo ‘alto.
And McCoy us looking into automatic payment processes.
What kind of auditor do I want? Someone headquartered at City Hall, who would go beyond financial issues or comparisons with other cities. to investigate issues such as:
a) Why does it take Palo Alto so long to get things done – like solving the Embarcadero-El Camino intersection daily traffic tie-up problem that began in 2009?
b) Does this city manager need 12 highly paid assistants? Can he do with less?
c) Are our utility rates rising too fast each year, sometimes twice a year, as is now occurring?
d) Do we need so many employees for a city of 65,000?
e) Palo Alto has an every-other-Friday-off policy for the past decade, and about a dozen other paid holidays; another one was added this year. Are employees of other cities getting so much time off and so many benefits?
Of course, some of these questions the city manager and council may not want answered, but I know a lot of residents do.
I strongly believe we need an auditor of our own, who knows and understands this town rather than only visiting it two or three times a year. We need an auditor who will be able to make an independent examination and investigation of the practices in our fair city, and report back to residents all the warts, wrinkles, successes and accomplishments.