Pratt, Young object to plan to hire outside auditors

Two of Baltimore's top elected officials objected Wednesday to the administration's plan for choosing outside auditors to monitor large agencies, such as police and public works.

Officials with Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's administration told the city's spending board that they are taking steps to ensure the performance and finances of 13 major agencies are audited once very four years, as required by a recent city charter amendment.

But Comptroller Joan M. Pratt and City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young said the independence of the reviews are in question under the administration's plan. The city finance director — a member of the mayor's Cabinet — would, in consultation with the mayor, select the firms to do $1.1 million a year in auditing work, officials said.

Pratt said the city should provide more money for her to hire additional staff for the auditing department, which was put under the comptroller's office in 1964 to ensure independence from the executive branch. Using internal auditors would also save taxpayer dollars, Pratt said.

"If the audit department had been funded properly, there wouldn't be a need to allocate $1 million today to outside auditors," she said.

Young said he prefers that the reviews be conducted by auditors in the comptroller's office. He voted against the administration's selection approach, but for a measure to spend $1.1 million in auditing contracts.

"Because we need to get these audits done, I am going to support this with wide-open eyes," Young said.

The Board of Estimates voted 4-1, with Pratt opposed, to spend the money. The administration's plan for selecting the auditors was approved 3-2, with Pratt and Young opposed. The spending measure authorizes the city to select one of four auditing firms to conduct the agency reviews on an as-needed basis.

In addition to Young and Pratt, the five-member board includes the mayor and two members of her administration.

Harry E. Black, the city's finance director, defended the policy, saying it was the most cost-effective and efficient means of conducting the required audits.

Black said agency directors will have the opportunity to select either the internal auditing department or an outside firm to conduct the review. Pratt's office will be able to submit a proposal to conduct the audit, and if the agency is awarded the project, it would be paid.

"It's not about power," Black said. "We just want to get this work done. ... We want to come into compliance with this new city charter requirement."

Pratt also challenged the administration on another matter, an administration request to increase spending for computer hardware, software and equipment by $5 million. Pratt said she suspects the administration is using the contract to move forward on the purchase of a new high-tech phone system without a formal bidding process. A similar complaint in 2012 led to a report by the city inspector general's office criticizing the Mayor's Office of Information Technology.

"It appears that they are moving forward," Pratt said Wednesday. "We are asking for specific questions to be answered. We're not getting them."

Kevin Harris, the mayor's spokesman, denied that the administration is attempting to replace the phone system piece by piece.

"The administration doesn't run the phone system, so it is not for us to replace," he said. "The comptroller's office has to make that call."

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