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Controller issues

Audits of L.A. programs seemed like a good idea, until council members came under scrutiny.

November 12, 2008

The City Council doesn't lack for a sense of humor. Take last Friday, for example, when it scuttled an attempt to let voters clarify whether the city controller has the power to audit programs run by other elected officials.

To get the joke, you'll need some background. Once upon a time, an appointed Los Angeles official known as the city administrative officer conducted performance audits of city programs. That is, the CAO looked into various city operations and reported back to the mayor and the City Council on whether things could be run better. But the CAO had a low public profile and his reports were often ignored, so there was a push to get someone else to do those audits. Two charter reform commissions agreed that the elected city controller, who already did financial audits, should also audit the performance of city programs. Voters approved the change when they adopted the new City Charter in 1999.

Earlier this year, Controller Laura Chick tried to audit the workers compensation programs in City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo's office. They tangled over whether the charter really meant that the controller could pry into a matter under the purview of another elected official. They each got expert opinions from leaders of those two charter reform commissions from a decade ago, and wouldn't you know it, the leaders disagreed. Chick subpoenaed city attorney documents, and Delgadillo sued Chick.

To the rescue rode the City Council, which suggested letting the voters settle the question next March, at the same time they're voting for a new controller and city attorney. Delgadillo and Chick were agreeable and stopped their court actions. In August, the council scheduled hearings.

OK, here comes the funny part. When council members discovered that they too might come under controller scrutiny, they suddenly found the issue too important to put to the voters. Jose Huizar worried about a program he controls using a special fund from his district. Richard Alarcon demanded that someone audit the controller. Tom LaBonge pointed out, apropos of nothing, that Chick once gave a briefing to mayoral candidates challenging James K. Hahn (Alarcon neglected to mention that he was one of them).

So, on the last possible day to put a measure on the March 3 ballot, the council "protected" voters from deciding to give their controller broad performance audit powers. Chick is subpoenaing documents again, and Delgadillo will sue. The council's "mediation" amounted to protecting its own interests, disenfranchising voters, delaying for three months and failing to avert costly legal proceedings. Funny stuff.

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