Greater Sudbury’s auditor general has been on year-to-year contracts since 2011, a decision he says makes it much more difficult for him to do his job.
And that lack of job security played a role in the decision of the only other auditor in Brian Bigger’s department to leave for a permanent job elsewhere.
“Absolutely,” Bigger said, when asked if job security played a role in the departure of Senior Auditor Carolyn Jodouin. “The concern with that is that the audit function is temporary. It’s not a permanent institution firmly established within the organization.”
While it’s not unusual for auditor generals to be employed for time-limited contracts, he said audit staff usually have more job security. And when Bigger was hired in 2008, the bylaw creating the auditor’s office stipulated his term was to be three years, with an option for renewal for another three years.
However, in closed-door meetings held in late 2011, the audit committee decided to bring Bigger back on one-year contracts only. He has since been renewed until December 2013. Those 2011 meetings were later the subject of a complaint to Ontario Ombudsman Andre Marin, who later cleared council of accusations it improperly met behind closed doors.
As for hiring a new internal auditor, Jodouin’s last day is Jan. 4, with the job posting circulating until Jan. 7. Bigger hopes to have someone new in place by March.
“Obviously, we’ve cut our department in half, so it will delay some of the reports that we’re working on,” he said. “We’re working on two audits right now. One is environmental services – the garbage collection contract – and the other one is the advertising revenue for the Transit buses and the community arenas.”
Bigger said the fact he’s only allowed to hire someone on a temporary basis sends the message the auditor’s office isn’t permanent, which makes finding a new internal auditor more difficult.
“That’s my dilemma,” he said. “I’m offering one-year contract. I’m quite confident that a year before an election, both our contracts will be renewed. But part of the reason I believe I’m in this position now is because the position is not a permanent position – and that can impact on the kind of candidate I’m going to get.”
Bigger said one of the reasons he took the job in the first place was the security offered by three-year contracts. However, he was renewed on a year-to-year basis, rather than the full three years, in an attempt, Bigger says, to get him to be less aggressive in his audits. But he continues to assert his office’s independence.
“One of the levers that the city can basically hold over our head – and that I’ve been able to resist up until this point – is, ‘we’ll reduce your contract to one-year renewals and we’ll hold that over your head,’ ” he said. “The inference is, ‘watch what you put in audit reports, because we (may) not renew your contract.’
“And so we can back off, or we can hold the line. And that’s what we’ve been doing. Since my contract was reduced to one-year renewals, we have released the HCI report and the changes in road design reports. So I’m determined not to let this factor impact our independence.”
His working relationship with city councillors and staff has improved over the last year, Bigger said, and people are generally more co-operative and open in dealing with him.
“So that’s positive,” he said. “But there certainly are challenges when… operating on a one-year contract. It’s just one more of the levers that potentially impacts our ability to do our job.”
The message being sent is that not only is the position of the auditor general temporary, so is the entire department. That message is hammered home by the fact that both he and whomever he hires only have a contract until the end of 2013.
“What they’re saying by tying the two contracts together is, if I go, they’re going to shut down the entire auditor general’s department,” Bigger said.
“Is that what they’re really saying?
“So they don’t like me – but does that mean any confidence that the public derives from oversight here is basically lost, because (councillors) don’t like me?”
Bigger is grateful for the support he’s received from the public, which, he says, is the biggest single factor why he’s still on the job.
“That’s why I held the line on independence, because I felt if we backed away the most important element of our job – independence – we wouldn’t have public support,” he said.
“We’ve had fantastic public support up until this point. And that’s really the reason why we’re still here, quite frankly. The public’s support has kept the auditor general’s office in place.”
We’ve had fantastic public support up until this point. And that’s really the reason why we’re still here, quite frankly. The public’s support has kept the auditor general’s office in place.
Auditor General for the City of Greater Sudbury
Audit Committee Chair Claude Berthiaume was unavailable to comment by Northern Life’s deadline. But in an emailed statement, Mayor Marianne Matichuk said Bigger has her full support.
“I believe taxpayers have received excellent value from his office over the past two years and my expectation is taxpayers will continue to receive excellent value from the auditor general’s office in the long term,” Matichuk said.
While refusing to comment on the status of Bigger’s contract for confidentiality reasons, she said she fully supports the auditor’s office and the work being done there.
“I have always expressed unconditional support for the internal audit function within the City of Greater Sudbury,” Matichuk said. “I have said it before and I will say it again ... as long as I am mayor, there will be an office of the auditor general in Greater Sudbury.”
Dan Melanson, head of the Greater Sudbury’s Taxpayers Association, said by only allowing him to hire someone on a temporary basis, council has tied Bigger’s hands.
“Who’s going to want to (come) here for a one-year contract?” Melanson said. “They’re not creating an atmosphere which is conducive to the ongoing operations of that office … At the very least, his contract should reflect the term of the current council.”
Melanson said it appears councillors are trying to control the content of the audits by taking away Bigger’s job security, putting him in the position of either pulling his punches, or risk losing his job.
“I there’s a concerted effort on the part of some members of council to try and gain some influence over the audits that he’s doing -- and I don’t think it’s right,” he said. “How can you expect to attract good people who will come on for a contract position if it’s only for a year?
“At the very least, they should have gone two years, until the end of council’s term. And then the new council coming in could decide whether they wanted to give him a four-year term or bring someone else in.”
Melanson said the GSTA has long called for the auditor general’s office to become permanent, with the auditor’s term of office the same at city council’s – four years. While appointed by city council, Melanson said the auditor needs independence and job security to do his job.
“The auditor general’s office is vital and critical to instilling confidence in the taxpaying public that our money is being spent properly and there is someone who is looking out for our best interests,” he said. “Any effort on the part of council to try and minimize that office should not be looked upon as a positive thing.”
For his part, Bigger said a long-term commitment to the office itself would make it easier to hire and retain trained staff.
“It would be very nice if council would decide, as a group, that the audit function is here to stay in Greater Sudbury,” he said, adding, “It’s going to turn out to be an interesting year.”