If the Honolulu City Council has an attack dog, his name might be Edwin.

And on Monday, some members decided to sic him on what they perceive is wasteful government spending.

Edwin, of course, is City Auditor Edwin S.W. Young, whose office is under the umbrella of the nine-member council.

They set his budget and can ask him to investigate matters they find to be troublesome.

He doesn’t always have to do what they ask, however. In fact, he considers himself more watchdog than attack dog.

But on Monday, the Budget Committee — headed by Council Member Ann Kobayashi — advanced two resolutions that asked Young to audit public relations spending for rail and contracting procedures for the Sand Island Wastewater Treatment Plant.

This isn’t the first time the Sand Island sewage digester or Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation PR spending have come up in council discussions. Far from it. Here are prior Civil Beat articles about those issues:

But by tapping the city auditor, council members are raising a larger question about what it is they want to accomplish.

Do they still have legitimate concerns about PR spending and contracting for sewer work, and are they truly using the auditor to get answers to those questions?

Or are the council members simply playing politics with the current administration, and trying to flex one of their bureaucratic muscles?

Council Chair Ernie Martin said the auditor’s responsibilities includes reviewing issues of “continuing concern” related to city financial matters.

He said many members have concerns about the large amount of money spent on rail public outreach and the continuing push for the second digester at Sand Island.

“I think with respect with the administration proceeding (with construction on the second digester at Sand Island), I think from some of the council members’ perspectives, almost giving the current contractor carte blanche in moving forward even though there are concerns that have been expressed in the past and continue to be expressed,” Martin said. “So I think there’s a continuing level of frustration that the administration is not paying as much attention as they should to the concerns expressed by the members.”

Whether an audit has the power to get the administration’s attention remains to be seen. Just because the auditor makes a finding, doesn’t mean Mayor Peter Carlisle or his cabinet has to agree with it.

Young doesn’t consider himself an attack dog, but rather an independent watchdog over city government finances.

“We’re required to be independent, objective and stay clear of the politics,” he told Civil Beat after the two resolutions were advanced Monday. “So what we do is we base our results and our conclusions and our opinions on facts and figures, not on the politics.”

Young said audits can’t be done “overnight” but rather take at least six to 12 months and can be delayed if the administration is less than helpful. The to-do list can get long. Young’s office conducts a risk assessment to determine which areas to focus on, and supplements that self-initiated work plan with requests from the council.

“I think the city charter is quite clear: They pass a resolution and we have to perform their audit,” he said. “The question is: When do we do it? And that depends on our resources and how many we have in the hopper.”

Young said he’s “cleaned the slate” of all the other council-requested audits and that staff will be made available to address the two new audits, after some tweaking and refining, should the full council approve the requests.

“You can audit the world. You can go on a hunting, fishing expedition, or you can do your homework, do the research, and scope the audit to something that’s doable within six months, and that’s what we try to do,” Young said.

He said the HART-public-relations-related audit will “dovetail” nicely with a broader HART audit already included in the work plan. And the Environmental Services procurement audit follows on the heels of a 2008 audit related to the Synagro contract.

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