Public trust in Austin’s elected officials and staff could be restored with an independent efficiency audit of all city departments, Fred Lewis said during a panel discussion Wednesday night at the Texas Public Policy Foundation.
Lewis, a well-known progressive attorney and activist, has drawn fire from some political allies for his support of Proposition K, asking voters on Nov. 6 to approve spending up to $5 million in the hopes of realizing perhaps hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars in efficiency savings.
Bobby Levinski, another member of the panel, a former city policy advisor, and candidate for the city council’s District 8 seat, called the audit proposal a waste of money and an affront to the hard-working Office of the City Auditor.
In between the polite sparring of Lewis and Levinski, Art Martinez de Vara, director of the Texas Local Government Center, told a group of about 35 and an internet streaming audience that outside audits of municipal services were common-sense tools for accountability from local bureaucrats.
Michael Searle, former chief of staff for City Council member Ellen Troxclair, and the creator of the petition that allowed voters to consider Proposition K, sat quietly in the audience.
Dissatisfaction with the way the city is run, rather than some hidden political agenda, is driving the call for an independent audit, Lewis told the audience. Also on the ballot Nov. 6 are bond items totalling $925 million, borrowing that voters would support more vigorously if they better trusted their city officials to spend it wisely, he said.
“I regularly interact with the City of Austin and I’m not overly impressed with how it functions,” Lewis said. “I don’t care if you are conservative or liberal, people want their government to perform better.”
Levinski, an attorney for the environmental nonprofit Save Our Springs Alliance, repeatedly said an outside audit wasn’t needed and that Auditor Corrie Stokes ran an accountable, transparent and active office.
“Why would we spend $4 million for auditing we already have?” Levinski asked.
But as Lewis pointed out, Stokes told The Texas Monitor in August that in her two decades with the auditor’s office, no comprehensive audit of all of the city’s 30 departments and two utilities had ever been done. While she said such an audit would be a “challenge,” Stokes thought it was a good idea to have a review from the outside.
Martinez de Vara speculated that voters in Austin will approve Proposition K on the premise that “everyone expects efficiency from their government.” But he also said he expects opposition of the kind shown by some city staff and elected officials, including Mayor Steve Adler and a city council majority.
The mayor and council’s approval of the language of Proposition K over the objection of Searle and other audit supporters was challenged in a lawsuit turned away by the Texas Supreme Court in August. Fans of the proposal say the ballot language is misleading and negative.
“An efficiency audit is something completely different,” Martinez de Vara said. “It’s very different when you audit yourself. It’s hard to see your own inefficiencies. I would expect resistance from city staff. Nobody likes to be reviewed.”
Martinez de Vara said petitioning the council to put the audit question on the ballot is an important way for citizens to have a voice in local governments like Austin’s where much of the decision-making on how tax money is spent runs through city staff and the city manager.
The council, whose main role is to make policy, must also pass an annual budget “without the staffing to scrutinize staff recommendations,” Lewis said.
“There aren’t enough resources to make the checks and balances work,” he said.
During a question-and-answer period, moderator Chuck DeVore, vice president of national initiatives for the Public Policy Foundation, said there might be interest at the state level in promoting independent efficiency audits in other cities.
The panelists, Lewis in particular, opposed any legislation that would mandate audits that they said should be decided on by individual cities.
Lewis also took on a question from the audience echoing the charge that the audit proposal is a front by conservatives to dismantle cherished programs in a progressive city.
He said government audits were a success in the Democratic administration of President Bill Clinton and adopted as the Texas Performance Review by John Sharp, current chancellor of the Texas A&M University System, then the state comptroller during the administration of Democratic Gov. Ann Richards in the early 1990s.
When Searle approached Lewis with the idea for an outside audit for Austin, he didn’t judge it based on Searle’s conservative politics, but by its merits, Lewis said.
“If you want the public to support the things you want to spend all this money on, you want your government to run better,” he said. “Let’s find out the truth about how our money is spent. We could at least try it and let’s see if it’s beneficial.”
Mark Lisheron can be reached at [email protected].