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Column: Tense audit process in need of a fix

Greater Sudbury has much to be thankful for when it comes to the city’s auditor general’s office.
Greater Sudbury has much to be thankful for when it comes to the city’s auditor general’s office.

But, despite its proven ability to uncover problems and find better ways of doing things, the AG once again butted heads with city staff over its latest audit, which looked at the way the city tenders contracts.

Why the audit process in Sudbury seems so fraught with tension and confrontation when the AG has had so much success is not a simple thing to understand. Auditor General Brian Bigger and his staff have compiled some high-profile, hard-hitting reports. That his reports include recommendations for operational and procedural improvements opens staff and council to public criticism, which likely plays a role in the tense relationship the office has at city hall.

As the taxpayers’ watchdog at Tom Davies Square, the AG’s office provides an invaluable service to us, as ratepayers, and to staff who, hypothetically, can work with the office to make their jobs run more smoothly.

The public has applauded his office’s successes, even as Bigger’s relationships at TDS seemed to suffer and he clashed with staff and councillors.

Part of the reason the 2013 advertising contract audit was delayed, Bigger told the audit committee last year, was because staff dragged its feet. He encountered the same problems during the 2012 roads audit, Bigger said.

Troubles aside, that same year, the AG’s work was given a thumbs up by the Institute of Internal Auditors, but that same report also found the local process too confrontational and recommended changes.

Still, Bigger said then things were improving.

From his position as the watchdog, it’s tempting to see the AG as a victim, fighting a resistant corporate culture, but really, we have only Bigger’s complaints and councillors’ rebukes to go on — it’s one-sided. We don’t get to see the auditors as staff see them, in action, so it’s a tricky thing to blame the whole situation on council and staff.

Which bring us back to his latest audit of the way the city tenders contracts. Bigger said the city does a poor job of estimating the number of watermain breaks every year, so tenders favour the contractor who did the work the prior season, since that company would know how many leaks it plugged.

If every business who could tender had all the info, the city might get more tenders and a better price. Seems reasonable.

But the city said the number of breaks from the prior year are used as the estimate in the yearly tender, so the information is already there for everyone. In others words, the auditor’s recommendation was the practice. Bigger persisted though, insisting staff could guess better — a suggestion which left staff kind of scratching their heads.

It left me scratching my head, too. Watermain breaks are increasing as infrastructure ages, but there’s no such thing as an exact estimate. It is, after all, an estimate.

The confrontation also left me wondering why these differences couldn’t be ironed out during the audit process, instead of argued about during a meeting.

It’s one more example of why a cultural shift is needed. This shouldn’t always be such a fight since the goal — to make the best use of taxpayers’ money — must be everyone’s priority.

The auditor’s office has proven its worth, but who knows how much more work would get done and money would be saved if the head-butting ended.

If the steps taken in 2012 to make the process less confrontational aren’t working, perhaps it’s time to bring in a marriage counsellor of sorts to help everyone — council, staff and the AG’s office, too — start afresh and rally around a common cause.

Because right now — whether because of a poor relationship, a flawed process or something else — the AG only produced two audits in the last two years.

And that is not the best use of our money either, is it?

Mark Gentili is the managing editor of Northern Life and