By Jill Draper
The job is like a backseat driver pointing out where to turn or a mechanic looking for a loose connection. Or it’s like a prospector gathering fine specks of gold or a dentist poking around with sharp little questions to find a bad tooth. Then again, maybe it’s like a mystery writer asking who, what and why?
Douglas Jones, KCMO’s city auditor, describes his work more directly than these metaphors coined by Gary Blackmer, a longtime auditor in Oregon, for an article in the Association of Local Government Auditors.
According to Jones, “We ask what can we do to make things better or at least promote some transparency and public accountability.”
Jones heads an eight-member team at City Hall that does performance audits focused on the city’s huge $1.74 billion budget, 7,100 employees and wide-ranging activities within an area that covers more than 300 square miles.
The city auditor’s goal is often to save money, but always to improve city services, he says.
He’d like the public to help by suggesting topics for investigation. That’s an option that began in 2014 when he became office director. Suggestions can be anonymous (most are) but must be somewhat specific. Ideas like “audit the Public Works Department” are not useful.
Three audits planned for the coming fiscal year were suggested by the public: a look at recruiting and hiring practices in the KC Police Department; the use of funds and processes for public improvement projects (PIAC); and regulations and enforcement of short-term rentals like Airbnb.
Audit requests also are made by the mayor and City Council, such as a current directive to examine the Board of Police Commissioners use of community policing and prevention funds. And others, like an in-depth look at KC Water’s customer service practices related to bills with unexpected high water usage, are topics the auditing team sees being discussed on local TV news or social networking sites like Nextdoor.
“Sometimes there’s no telling how we find out about something,” Jones says.
To understand the programs being audited, Jones and his team have toured the city jail, visited community centers, gone on ride-alongs with police officers, listened to 911 calls and checked out streetlights by night and sidewalks by day.
Jones says one of the most fun experiences was when “we got to act like the bad guy” by creating a phishing email sent to 3,100 city employees. About 20% clicked on the link and 9% offered their log-in credentials. After security training, the city’s IT staff sent a similar email where the click rate dropped to 18% and only 4% provided their credentials.
“That’s pretty good, I think,” he says.
A huge audit occurred in 2020 when the City Council asked for a report on city-owned buildings and facilities. Jones’ team postponed four other audits to concentrate on evaluating 670 buildings and facilities and nearly 1,900 parcels, pooling scattered bits of information into one document. They found the city owned several hundred potential surplus properties with an estimated market value of $19.1 million. They also found many poorly managed lease agreements and considerable underused space at City Hall.
Management usually agrees with their findings and promises to make changes. But not always. A 2016 audit of Police Department vehicles found 45% of the fleet was assigned as take-home cars with no tracking of mileage or how they were used after hours. Limiting the use of these cars and prohibiting officers from transporting family and friends would save around $1.5 million, the auditors recommended. KCPD disagreed and did not respond.
Jones has worked for the city more than 28 years. “What started as a job is now an advocation,” he says. “Being able to improve the community you live in—that’s a cool thing.”
A question he gets asked is who audits the auditors? They follow standards from the U.S. Government Accountability Office and every three years undergo a peer review by an outside association.
The office has had and passed nine reviews, but Jones admits his team doesn’t look forward to it.
“In general, folks don’t like being audited. Even us.”