Looking at the report by Hamilton accountant and auditor Fay Booker on a $500 Million Downtown Brampton redevelopment plan it becomes clear that there is no substitute for clear-eyed, completely independent auditing at the municipal level. The Brampton project was approved following a procurement process that virtually excluded politicians from involvement until they were presented with a take it or leave it vote on a single proposal. Councillors were not allowed to see any of the competing bids. When one of the unsuccessful bidders sued, things started to unravel and Booker was hired to examine the deal. What she found were numerous inconsistencies and examples of outright deceit by staff on key aspects of the deal that tilted the scales in favour of the bidder staff favoured.
There is nothing like that going on in Hamilton as far as we know, which makes it a perfect time to create an auditor – general type of position for Hamilton. The advantages of such a position are numerous. A truly independent auditor could react to complaints from the public without the constraints that would fall to city staff. When not reacting to public complaints the auditor could select various aspects of city spending for review.
A good, independent audit function would carry a price tag, but that could be more than offset by the savings that would be identified by the audit. We have seen glimpses of potential savings in an audit conducted on the water and wastewater division of Public Works a few years back by the city’s internal auditor. But that audit was ordered only after a former employee levelled charges of misappropriation and theft, forcing some kind of response. The audit identified sloppy accounting on individual projects with the transfer of funds from projects that came in under budget to those running over budget. But for the highly public charges of dishonesty, which were refuted eventually, such an audit would not likely have been initiated by internal staff.
A good independent audit function can be a boon to senior management in a municipal setting where entrenched practices and independent fiefdoms make it difficult to introduce positive change. For the public there can never be too many sets of eyes keeping track of things on the public’s behalf.