By LIZ BUTTON
Democratic City Council candidates Meg Cameron and Shari Punyon made what might be seen as the first sally in this year’s political season calling for an organization-wide review of city operations.
Last week, the two candidates issued a joint statement to The Rye City Review announcing that, as part of their platform, they propose an audit “to ensure responsible government officials and governing procedures.”
“Every well run organization does this on a regular basis,” Cameron said. “It’s just something you do if you want to make sure things are working, even if they are working wonderfully, that they continue to do so.”
If it is true that the Rye Golf Club scandal uncovered last year, in which hundreds of thousands of dollars of member dues were allegedly stolen, did, in fact, result from a failure of oversight by the city, then those elected to the City Council need to take measures to assure that the city’s internal and independent audit and control procedures are protecting taxpayers as they deserve, the candidates said.
The proposed analysis will focus on reviewing each city department to determine its ability to perform required tasks and identify areas for improvement; reviewing the city’s short and long-term infrastructure needs, including road repair, facility management and flood mitigation; and looking at the city’s procedures for internal oversight, management and auditing.
Punyon said that taking steps to ensure that government is running efficiently and effectively is something that should be taken up before, not just after, a financial scandal breaks, like the one at the the golf club.
The city pays independent auditing firm O’Connor Davies to conduct a citywide financial audit each year of not only the city’s general fund but its enterprise funds at the golf club and the boat basin.
However, Cameron said, a financial audit conducted in 2010 actually raised a red flag about certain irregularities in finances at the golf club, and, at the time, the City Council, although it was their duty to follow up on audit results, did not push hard enough for city staff to look into the situation.
Three of this year’s candidates—Joe Sack, Peter Jovanovich and Julie Killian—are incumbents who have been in office while the golf club controversy unfolded.
Rye Democrats handpicked Cameron and Punyon as its two candidates for City Council and announced their candidacy in July. While four of the seven council seats are up for grabs this year, including mayor, the Democrats only filled two of the four slots they had available and declined to select a mayoral candidate.
In June, the city Republicans nominated a bipartisan ticket calling itself Rye United, consisting of mayoral candidate Councilman Joe Sack along with three City Council candidates: Councilwoman Julie Killian, Terry McCartney and registered Democrat Kirstin Bucci.
Sack said he was glad Cameron and Punyon have joined him and his running mates in a call for the current mayor and City Council to exercise more effective oversight of city government, something, he said, in which the outgoing administration of Republican Mayor Douglas French has been lacking.
McCartney added that, while he agrees with the Democrats that oversight is an important function of the City Council, “the sorts of things they are proposing, like surveys, reviews and audits, are not oversight to me.”
To McCartney, proper oversight in this case involves assuring that the employees of the city are doing their jobs in a professional, forthright manner; the City Council needs to be strong enough leaders to hold staffers accountable when they do not do these things. The City Council is primarily a policy-making entity, but doing their job well is the essential function of the paid city employees, he said.
Punyon agreed that it is also important to have efficient people in key staff positions in the city, and this could be ensured, in part, by implementing more regular performance reviews of city staff.
Sack said the Democrats’ proposal would have been made even stronger had it called in particular for ensuring greater accountability in specific consideration of the city manager’s conduct in the years before the golf club scandal was unfolding. City Manager Scott Pickup should have more thoroughly investigated financial irregularities discovered at the golf club through the 2010 citywide audit, Councilman Sack said.
When it comes to the other incumbent seeking the mayoral office, Republican Councilman Peter Jovanovich said he agreed with Cameron and Punyon that more oversight is necessary, but said that a more specifically focused audit designed to sniff out fraud would be more useful than the proposed general audit of city government effectiveness.
In his professional experience in the corporate and governmental worlds, Jovanovich, who is running as an independent candidate, said, audits such as these focusing on long range planning results usually end in a long report that ends up sitting on a shelf and rarely gets acted upon.
If he is elected, Jovanovich said he would push for the city to hire a full-time internal auditor in the Finance Department to keep track of the functions of the city as well overseeing the conducting of specialized external audits for each of the enterprise funds—the golf club and the boat basin—and the recreation center, all places where cash transactions are frequent.
“What I’m proposing is really to catch fraud; that is, to check invoices, to check temp worker sign-ins…that’s where I’m for more oversight,” Jovanovich said.
He said the internal auditor would report to the City Council’s Audit Committee, which, until the new administration is sworn in in January, will consist of himself, Mayor French and Councilwoman Killian. This committee then reports to the entire City Council, rather than to the city manager.
A full-time internal auditor is a type of position that some larger cities have, Jovanovich said. During the country’s economic recession, City Hall was subjected to massive budget cuts to keep taxes low, trimming staff from 175 to 151 employees and eliminating the assistant city manager position, after which current City Manager Scott Pickup was promoted from the position to city manager, as well as human resources staff.
But it is obvious now, that, some staffers should be added back. Missteps and mistakes have made it clear that city staff is currently spread too thin, Jovanovich said.