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Panel Calls for Reform of Audit Department

Grand jury says reviews of Ventura County finances take too long and are watered down.

May 27, 2003|Catherine Saillant | Times Staff Writer

Grand jurors say Ventura County government's auditing department is so weak that major reforms are needed to fix it.

Financial reviews take up to two years to complete and are watered down by the county's "collegial" approach to auditing, the grand jury said in a report released last week.

That undercuts the department's intended function as the taxpayers' fiscal watchdog, the report stated.

"Current policy has led to the [audit target] having too strong an influence over the content of a final audit report," grand jurors said in the report.

Another problem cited is the conflict that arises from having an elected official responsible for auditing duties and the controller's office. The controller's office oversees cash flow in the county's $1.1-billion budget and the issuance of checks.

Grand jurors are recommending that supervisors consider separating those functions so the elected position would have responsibility only for auditing. That would strengthen the auditor's independence and credibility, the report stated.

"The current structure places the Auditor-Controller in a conflicting situation when there are differences between the controller staff and the audit staff," the report stated.

Auditor-Controller Christine Cohen said she is preparing a formal response to the grand jury and would not comment.

The report makes several other recommendations.

An audit oversight committee should be created to monitor the effectiveness of the auditing function, and county policy should be changed to mandate that an audited department respond to draft findings within 60 days, the grand jurors said.

They also said departments should be audited more frequently, which would require the Board of Supervisors' cooperation by adding more staff members and other resources.

The auditing staff has been badly depleted over the last two decades, according to the report. In 1981, the county had 17 auditors and performed 55 audits. By 2000, however, there were just six auditors on staff and they produced only seven audits.

Reviews of county finances and operations are key to sound government policy and often lead to cost-saving changes, the report stated.

At least one supervisor is in agreement with the findings.

John Flynn, a 25-year board member, said he remembers when the county's 27 departments and agencies were being audited "all the time."

"It's helpful," Flynn said. "It's a great check on our departments."

Over the years, the auditing staff was decreased as the county faced chronic budget troubles, the supervisor said. It is time to again focus on those controls, Flynn said.

"This is what happens when there is such a reduction in staff," he said. "It's a ripple effect. It has an impact on everything."

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