Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2006 | The mayor and City Council are set Wednesday to consider implementing a much-discussed plan to reform San Diego’s financial disclosure and auditing practices.

The proposals within it have been interpreted by some to be a panacea for the city’s ills that will set it straight and prevent it from entering the same troubled waters again.

If it were only so easy.

The proposals reflect the 54 recommendations presented to the city by the consultants from Kroll Inc. They restructure the city auditor’s position and put in place an expensive series of oversight boards.

They may have validity, but there is no indication at all that had they been in place beginning a decade ago, the problems we’re experiencing now would have been avoided. That’s exactly why they should be considered as proposals only. San Diegans – especially the City Council – should be very hesitant to push through, unquestioned, reforms of this magnitude without a discussion. Yet the mayor and the editorial board of a local newspaper have suggested they do just that.

That’s irresponsible. There are valid and important criticisms of Kroll’s recommendations. Like the City Council’s independent budget analyst we worry about the amount of power the recommendations provide the mayor. The proposals, if the City Council implements them without resistance, would provide the mayor with power to appoint the very people who are supposed to oversee his – appointed – auditor. Mayor Jerry Sanders may deserve such power and he may wield it well. But we have reason to worry about giving that much influence to any single office.

Previous mayors, while not vested with the authority to manage the city that the current mayor enjoys, appointed several committees – some of which were meant to look into the city’s finances specifically and produced untainted accounts. City employees easily manipulated and misled those groups.

We have no evidence, then, that if the city government is ever again led by mayors as disappointing as some from our past, these additional bureaucratic constructs will provide a realistic check on the efforts of mal-intentioned or misled elected officials.

Kroll says it has indeed provided a check to those powers by including a member of the City Council on one of the oversight boards and providing better job security to people like the city auditor. Again, the former city auditor Ed Ryan had plenty of job security. Though now he stands accused of some of the more egregious of actions.

Finally, the proposals would require the city to hire a separate and expensive monitor to baby-sit the City Council and mayor as they make some of the tougher choices in coming years. This correctly diagnoses the problem, but wrongly prescribes a solution: The city has demonstrated the need for a paternal overseer, but we would hope not to have to hire such a person, but elect a few of them instead.

Members of the City Council, however, have done little to instill confidence in the public that they can be trusted to change their ways. The individual members directly implicated by Kroll of having been negligent and of having knowingly violated the law have not expressed anything resembling contrition or remorse for their actions. Quite the contrary, in fact, they seem determined to convince the public that they were not at all at fault and were easily misled and manipulated by city staff.

Yet they now expect the city’s residents to trust them to not let that happen again. They have no inherent right to that trust and they shouldn’t be surprised if citizens are reluctant to provide it.

Change will come when City Hall’s culture changes. When accountability is no longer a term bandied about to please federal investigators but a true sensation felt every day by city leaders.

The mayor has shown signs of such a conviction but even he has room for improvement. He announced, with great fanfare, for example, his “improvements” months ago to the way the city’s budget was presented to the public. It was a major disappointment – unintelligible in parts and lacking in information that had been available in past budgets. Worse, there was nothing in it that allowed readers to compare the revenues and expenditures to past years, a serious fault for a mayor who had hailed transparency as his trademark.

Making the city budget an easy-to-understand document that contained alternatives, priorities, long-term effects of pending decisions and comparative analysis would be a reform far more valuable than dozens of those proposed by the city’s lavish consultants. If that were available, every citizen in the city along with an already revitalized media could better serve as a collective “monitor” on the city’s future actions than any costly overseer.

Because, in the end, all the buzzwords of corporate governance will do us little good if they’re thrown around the same old halls of power.

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