Community Columns

Retired city auditor Nienhuis backs Measure M

On Tuesday, Modesto citizens have a historic opportunity to improve accountability in city government. Approving Measure M will bring Modesto more in line with cities of its size and complexity.

I came here in 1952, when we were about a tenth of our present size. Small-town government was simple. We're grown up now, and we need an update to improve accountability, efficiency and effectiveness of government.

The city charter cites a city auditor position without spelling out its duties. That role never was filled. Contrary to claims of opponents of Measure M, there is no city charter provision for an "internal auditor" -- just the title of city auditor. Because no duties are shown, nobody was appointed. Some peripheral work was done by the city clerk, who also was given the "auditor" title.

In 2001, the City Council approved a performance audit function under a combined clerk-auditor. I was hired. It was to be an interim arrangement until additional staff was hired. But that never happened.

The clerk has expertise in her area, but formal audit work requires a different background. Despite everyone's best efforts, the arrangement was not ideal. We need a solid requirement for a separate city auditor with specified duties.

I retired last year, after conducting a number of performance audits and investigations. I also took over selection and contract management for outside financial auditors. Financial audits require a certified public accountant firm. One thing struck me during my tenure: Had there been a city auditor previously, many problems the city experienced recently could have been headed off before they became huge.

Upon retiring, I was not replaced. Instead, the clerk-auditor selected outside firms for any performance audit work. Outside firms have their place, but they cost a lot more than a city auditor. They also do not provide the benefit of working inside city government, thus being able to see and hear what is going on.

Contrary to opponents' claims, a city auditor reporting directly to the council is, by Government Auditing Standards, independent. Departments will contribute nothing to the office's support. There is no issue of the auditor being afraid to bite the hand that feeds him or her. Those issues are bogus.

An auditor would provide the council with information on how efficiently and effectively programs are operating. Contrary to claims of an audit function creating higher cost, audit work typically creates savings far in excess of the cost.

Public corporations, state governments and local governments across the United States and Canada have audit functions as part of the controls over performance. The city of Modesto needs the same to improve accountability for operations.

To protect your tax dollars, I urge you to vote for Measure M.

Nienhuis retired as senior auditor for the city of Modesto in January 2007.