Honolulu City Auditor Edwin S.W. Young is in an awkward position.
The purpose of his job is to dig into various county departments and programs to make sure they run efficiently.
He’s also looking for any loopholes in accounting practices that could lead to fraud.
This can put him at odds with his colleagues, particularly when he tells them they’re doing something wrong.
And with an office under the purview of the Honolulu City Council, any criticism Young might have of the executive branch could be perceived as politically motivated.
That said, Young is used to being told he’s wrong. Whether it’s someone disagreeing with one of his findings or a cabinet member quibbling over his methodology, his work always seems to evoke a response.
Young says that’s just the nature of the government oversight. His job is to air dirty laundry with the hope that one day it gets cleaned.
“We’re working towards improvement in government,” Young said. It doesn’t matter if there’s criticism. “Based on my 30 years of auditing it’s normal. I don’t even get concerned about it. It’s water off my back.”
Young also dismisses any notion that his office is used for political maneuvering.
“All we do is present information,” he said. “It’s up to the city council and the executive branch to interpret the information that we provide. We’re not involved, and we’re precluded from being involved, in the implementation of any conclusions or recommendations. We’re not management, we’re the watchdog.”
Young’s most recent audit came out in March, and evaluated the city’s collection of delinquent real property taxes. Real property taxes make up about two-thirds of the city’s revenues.
The report found that in 2010 the city only collected $7.9 million of $16.8 million of outstanding delinquent taxes, but it didn’t have any tools to force individuals to pay this money back. One suggestions was for the city to enact a law that would allow it to deny city services, such as licenses, vehicle registration and permits, until those back taxes were paid.
Honolulu’s Department of Budget and Fiscal Services, however, disagreed with the audit, calling it “misleading, inaccurate and unsubstantiated.” The department, which is a part of Mayor Peter Carlisle’s executive branch, also said that fines or penalties could be “exploitative of taxpayers experiencing difficult economic circumstances.”
This in turn elicited a response from Honolulu City Council Chair Ernie Martin, who said the administration should take a “hard look” at Young’s recommendations.
“In fairness to all taxpayers who comply with the law the administration should be more aggressive on chronically delinquent accounts,” Martin said in a statement.
While this political to-and-fro might indicate Young’s audit recommendations would evaporate, that’s not necessarily the case.
In fact, when he looked at the 272 auditor recommendations that were made from April 2004 to July 2010, Young found that a majority were actually followed. This was also true for many of the findings that were publicly flogged.
“We were surprised by the implementation rate,” Young said. “We found that a very high percentage of the recommendations were implemented despite the public disagreement on the part of the executive branch.”
According to the study, about 80 percent of the recommendations were accepted or in the process of being implemented. It’s uncertain at this time whether the most recent delinquent tax recommendations will be undertaken.
The noise surrounding Young’s decision isn’t unique to his office. Honolulu Ethics Commission decisions often come under fire as well.
But even though many publicly protest their punishment — the most recent being council member Ikaika Anderson — Ethics Commission Executive Director Chuck Totto said no one has yet appealed. A reason for this, he said, could be that ethics probes, similar to audits, already include a process for disputing the allegations.
“Obviously, there’s a war of news releases whenever something comes out,” Totto said. “We understand that there will be this battle of news releases and that people will have different takes on the same issues. … It’s just a fact of life that people are going to argue and have disagreement.”
But like the auditor’s office, Totto said his agency must maintain its autonomy even though it’s considered to be a part of the Carlisle administration. He said that once people start believing the commission’s actions are politically motivated or arbitrary “we’ll lose our credibility.”
An example he gives comes from 2008 when a city council member asked him to speed up an ethics investigation into one of the candidates running for mayor. That council member, who Totto refused to name, wanted the results of the investigation to be made public before voting began. Totto said no.
“We’re very cautious to make sure people understand that we’re doing this to enforce the law,” he said. “We treat everybody the same, whether it’s the mayor, a council member, a mid-level supervisor or a trash collector.”
The City Auditor’s Office has a lot of work slated for the coming year fiscal year. Among the projects it has underway are audits of the city council’s annual contingency allowance, the Real Property Assessment Division of the Department of Budget and Finance and the funds that have been appropriated for bicycle projects.
Some upcoming projects include audits of the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation, transit and paratransit operations, and the management of capital projects.
The city council might soon add to this list. Last week, the Budget Committee approved sending two new resolutions to the council that would ask the auditor to look into public relations spending on the rail project and the contracting procedure related to the Sand Island Wastewater Treatment Plant upgrade. Both issues have been hot topics at Honolulu Hale for some time.
While these recent additions to the auditor’s workload raise questions about the motivations behind the resolutions, council member Ann Kobayashi, who heads the Budget Committee, said that shouldn’t be the case.
“I never look at it from a political point of view,” Kobayashi said. “You audit because you don’t want to see taxpayers’ money being wasted.”
She said the council doesn’t use the auditor as its personal attack dog. That would defeat the purpose, she said, and might lead to a cheapening of his recommendations.
“We’re very careful in who we choose in that position because we don’t want that to happen, and so far it hasn’t,” Kobayashi said. “The auditor is an independent body … They help to correct anything that might need fixing. They make recommendations to make everything more efficient. And sometimes they don’t find anything.”