By Diana Diamond
Is the City of Palo Alto transparent enough -- or is information being kept from the public?Uploaded: Sep 2, 2020
Eighteen-plus months -- that's how long it's taken so far for Palo Alto to choose a new auditor, a position required in the city charter. Residents still haven't been told officially whether there has been a selection, or when it will be announced, and that bothers me.
I do know one firm was chosen more than three weeks ago in a closed session of the city council -- at least that's what I was told by two of my sources.
Why should we care at all if it takes a long time? Why is an auditor so important?
I'll answer my own question: We should care because the auditor's job is to try to keep the city honest. And if there is no auditor around to check on what city staff, including city managers, are doing, then they don't have to worry much. And if one is hired?
Then they have to worry more.
I think the council made the wrong decision to hire a firm from outside rather than an individual to serve as a full-time auditor inside city hall, as has occurred in the past. Council members talked about saving money by using an outside firm -- and yes, they do compared to a full-time employee, but a good auditor can save the city hundreds of thousands of dollars, if the right person is aboard.
An inside auditor, as former auditor Sharon Erickson described, can get into interesting conversations with employees in the coffee room or at a lunch table. And her door was always open for an employee to drop in, oftentimes, she said, because the employee felt something was amiss in his or her department. An inside auditor can build up trust and confidence with city employees.
But if an outside firm is around doing the auditing, the representative is not poking around all day. And few employees will dare venture to make an appointment with some auditor they don't even know.
Keeping the hiring process secret for months is not the only example of lack of transparency in this city. There's a whole series recently of keeping things under wraps so the public doesn't know what's happening, especially in investigating police problems, and keeping many findings quiet. And this whole "keep the public unaware" practice is getting worse.
The council has hired lobbyists in Sacramento and when some members question progress, they are told, "We are working on it," said Councilmember Lydia Kou. "So we don't know what's happening and residents are kept in the dark," she added.
The council, she said, was also promised a report in October or January as to whether companies are staying in town or moving elsewhere because of the coronavirus. And there has been no update since May on the economic effects of businesses downtown and on California Avenue on the city budget. Some $40 million has already been cut from the $238 million general fund budget, and as I see businesses close downtown, I know things are getting worse in terms of future city revenues. Why not monthly reports? Why are we not being told what's happening?
Kou also said she does not know why a regularly scheduled Monday council meeting did not occur this week -- and she's a council member.
Then there were the police department problems that were kept quiet. In 2014, Capt. Zach Perron allegedly used a racial slur" in discussing an incident in which another officer, Marcus Barbour (who has since left the department) jumped into a creek and rescued a suspect. In 2017, public interest in this case arose. The city had hired the OIR Group, a prominent police auditing firm in southern California, who regularly issued semi-annual reports to the council and public that were detailed, specific and well received.
OIR investigated the Perron case because of a concern raised by an "outside source," not the city, and it was included in mid-year report. But OIR was asked by the city manager not to release the completed report so that city officials had time to devise a policy that shields the public cases that involve policeman-to-policeman incidents.
They devised a policy, sending all internal police department matters to the city's HR department, not to OIR. Why is that bad? Because once something goes into HR, it never comes out. It is declared a "personnel matter" and any info cannot be released to the public, the HR declares.
When OIR's contract was reapproved in late 2019, it disallowed the auditing firm from conducting investigations on internal police matters -- allowing only those involving the public. Michael Gennaco of OIR, described this as a major change. The council finally learned about this when in late 2019, Shikada told the council he wanted to send internal police matters to the HR department, instead of Gennaco. The council was told this was a minor change and everything would be the same, and the council went along with it.
It wasn't a minor change. It was major.
The public loses again.
There's always a delicate control line between the city manager, who is responsible for the day-too-day operations of the city, and the city council, who is elected by residents to oversee the city and oversee what is going on.
In my view, City Manager Ed Shikada tends to assume too much authority for making city decisions -- in all sorts of matters. He is overstepping his bounds, because when I've talked to several council members about a variety of issues, and many say, "I'm not sure what is going on." Or, "I haven't been updated on that matter. The city manager doesn't act like it's important to let council know what is going on.
It's time for the city council members to exert their rightful authority. Public knowledge of knowing about what is happening in their city is at stake.