A system of checks and balances is crucial to the effective functioning of any government, from city hall to the halls of Congress.
This is especially true when it comes to the handling of internal audits and investigations.
From the standpoint of objectivity, it makes no sense to have an internal auditor report to the person who has hiring and firing authority over the position.
Yet, that’s exactly the case in Killeen, where the city charter calls for the internal auditor to report to the city manager — who can fire the auditor at any time.
Obviously, the current situation has the potential to be problematic.
An internal auditor’s job is to point out errors, procedural problems and discrepancies in the city’s financial operations — all of which reflect to some degree on the city manager. Consequently, the ability to produce an impartial, thorough report could be compromised by the implied threat of termination.
Moreover, the current system allows internal audit reports to be edited or adjusted before being viewed by the council, and that has the potential to destroy an audit’s credibility — both in the eyes of the council members and the public.
A lawsuit filed against the city last week by former Killeen finance director Barbara Gonzales referenced an external audit presented in early 2012, in which the auditors advised that the internal auditor should remain independent so “the external auditor could rely on work performed.”
When the city published the external auditors’ report last April, it did not contain their critical comments. The city was without a council quorum at the time, as a result of the November 2011 recall election.
The lack of transparency inherent in the current setup was demonstrated by a 2009 internal audit in which the auditor reported to then-City Manager Connie Green that double billing occurred frequently by the city’s EMS billing department, constituting possible fraud and posing a potential liability to the city. Though Green claimed the problem had been rectified, it was much later before council members were apprised of the auditor’s concerns.
Mayor Dan Corbin said he called for changes to the auditor situation when he was elected to the council in 2003, but couldn’t garner the necessary support. Now, as mayor, he helped push through a proposed charter amendment — Proposition 12 — that would put the council in charge of hiring and firing the internal auditor. The amendment — which is endorsed by City Manager Glenn Morrison — will be put to a public vote in May.
In most cities across the nation, the internal auditor answers to the council and not the city manager, Corbin noted.
Obviously the city manager’s position is vital to the efficient running of the city, and it comes with a broad range of responsibility and authority. As the post is currently structured in Killeen’s charter, the city manager has the ability to hire and fire all city employees, with the exception of the municipal judge, who is appointed by the council. Also, the appointment of department heads is subject to council approval, as is the appointment of a city attorney.
City policy further amplifies the city manager’s authority when it comes to the disposition of city employees who file appeals to terminations or reductions in hours.
Members of the review board that hears the appeals of terminated employees are appointed by the city manager, the same person who generally authorizes the termination in the first place.
Then, after the board has conducted an employee’s appeal hearing, the members submit their findings to the city manager — who can either accept or reject the board’s recommendations.
In other words, the entire review process is a closed system with no checks and balances. The review process is an extension of the charter’s language granting the city manager ultimate authority over hiring and removing employees. But from an outsider’s point of view, the deck appears to be stacked against those filing an appeal — and that’s not how an impartial appeal process should work.
The review process will be on display next month when Gonzales — who was fired by Morrison on Dec. 12 after a two-month internal investigation — has her hearing before the Civilian Personnel Hearing Board. It will be interesting to see how the board’s recommendation is received by the city manager, especially since Morrison was named in the lawsuit Gonzales’ attorney filed last week.
Whatever the board’s findings regarding Gonzales’ termination, an equitable, transparent resolution would be in the city’s best interest.
But without the logical checks and balances in place, that outcome is anything but a certainty.