Since the founding of our republic there has been tension between citizens who want to know about the conduct of their representatives and those in government who would prefer to do their business in secret.
Secrecy is not always bad policy. Few would argue that Franklin Roosevelt should have revealed the invasion plans for Normandy prior to D-Day.
However the responsibilities of most politicians are mundane and it is hard to argue that the public should be denied knowledge of how efficiently they are managing and spending taxpayers’ dollars.
A major collision between the interests of the public in knowing how well they are being served by elected officials and those of politicians who believe their stature should give them immunity from scrutiny is now taking place in Los Angeles. The side of full disclosure is being represented by the city controller while the side of secrecy is being defended by the city attorney.
A 1999 voter approved charter reform gave the city controller the power to conduct performance audits of city p departments. This new authority was designed to provide the public with an idea of how well they are being served by city government.
Using this authority Controller Laura Chick has worked tirelessly to open up the city’s business to the light of day. Her audits have uncovered serious issues of inefficiency and waste and sometimes fraud. It was she who uncovered millions of dollars of fraudulent billing by a public relations firm hired by the city-owned Department of Water and Power. It was the controller whose investigations revealed disarray in the city’s anti-gang programs and that only a third of the recently increased trash fee was actually used to hire more police instead of all of it as had been promised by city officials.
However when the controller sought to conduct a performance audit of the Workers Compensation program managed by City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo he responded by filing suit in an attempt to block what he considers an intrusion into his affairs.
If the city attorney is successful in scuttling the controller’s efforts to review how a multi-million-taxpayer dollar program is managed it could have dire ramifications for average citizens who depend on the efficiency and integrity of city programs. Hundreds of millions of dollars are housed in programs in elected officials’ offices including that of the mayor. If Delgadillo is successful in avoiding review of a program he manages it could embolden other politicians to block public scrutiny of their work.
Too often we have seen government officials make decisions that are clearly not in the best interests of taxpayers but are intended to perpetuate a bloated and unwieldy bureaucracy or to serve outside special interests. The power to audit and shine a light in the deep recesses of City Hall is a potent weapon in trying to control the behemoth that is Los Angeles city government.
It is time to settle the question of the controller’s authority once and for all by clarifying the charter with a vote of the people. This will require the Los Angeles City Council to put the clear definition of the controller’s powers on the ballot for the next regularly scheduled city election this coming March. This is not about Chick who is soon to be termed out. It is about maintaining the integrity of an oversight process that provides critical information to the public.
Already some council members are chiming in that the controller should not have the ability to conduct performance audits of programs housed in elected officials’ offices. In response taxpayers are asking who then will hold officials accountable for managing the millions of dollars they provide to the city? Do they really think the public supports having politicians run these programs beyond their view?
In the next few months the City Council should have a spirited and very public debate on this issue. In the end no matter where a councilmember comes down on the issue of these auditing powers they must let the voter not the courts make the ultimate decision.
Jon Coupal is President of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association — California’s largest taxpayer organization — which is dedicated to the protection of Proposition 13 and promoting taxpayers’ rights.