|Richmond Tries To Rise
November 2, 1998
CONTRA COSTA TIMES
CITY EMPLOYEES ARE DEVELOPING NEW POLICIES, PROCEDURES AND CONTROLS TO IMPROVE ACCOUNTABILITY AND PREVENT CORRUPTION
Monday, November 2, 1998
RICHMOND - The scandal that has rocked the city's recreation department may bring sweeping changes to Richmond government.
Like scientists in a lab developing a new vaccine, city employees are busy developing new policies, procedures and controls intended to inoculate the city against corruption and improve accountability and efficiency citywide.
Among their concoctions are tighter financial controls and accountability, and better record keeping and management.
An outside auditor said the city needed to change its policies after reviewing financial records and other files in the Recreation and Parks Department, which oversees the city's auditorium.
Policies have been under scrutiny since the July resignation of Brad Baxter, former manager of the recreation department. City officials said Baxter was forced to resign for falsifying his resume. Baxter said he was pushed out for uncovering graft in his department, particularly at the auditorium.
Baxter's accusations have prompted a series of ongoing investigations by the county grand jury, the city's police commission investigator and the auditor. Police and county prosecutors also conducted a probe, but found no evidence of a crime.
There was ample evidence, however, that the city needs to change the way it managed its money and records. The needs include new policies, procedures and controls, staff training, an internal audit program to monitor and oversee citywide spending, a computer program to manage city records and improve access both internally and for the public, and an inventory tracking system for city equipment.
Most City Council members agree that operations at City Hall are dysfunctional but critics are skeptical that things actually will change. Despite the doubts, City Manager Isiah Turner said he is determined to usher in a new era of responsibility.
"I am trying to create a culture with existing staff that our primary responsibility is to become more efficient and effective in the delivery of services," Turner said. "I consider the recreation situation an aberration, however, I am determined to re-engineer this organization and the way we do business."
Turner received a report on the financial audit of the recreation department last month, but it has not been released to the council or the public. The Times has submitted a request for the report under the California Public Records Act, but the city so far has denied the request, saying the document is part of a continuing investigation.
However, city officials have revealed that the report contains more than 20 recommendations, including a need for tighter controls over money. This was especially true in departments that had income-generating enterprises, like the Richmond auditorium. The report also called for better tracking and management of city records and equipment, they said.
"They are hard-nosed, very good recommendations, and I plan on implementing all of them," Turner said. "The outcome to the public should be better service in terms of better responsiveness."
Missing or misplaced records recently have surfaced as a significant problem in Richmond.
The audit and a three-day review of auditorium records by the Times revealed that key financial documents relating to seven big-name concerts held at the auditorium in 1995 and 1996 were missing.
The city eventually produced some related files, but the whereabouts of key financial data, including the entertainers' contracts, remain a mystery. That mystery played a significant role in auditor Dale Stephens' report and prompted the council to extend his probe of financial wrongdoing to include special events, concerts and bingo contracts at the auditorium, and of various revenues and expenditures for all city festivals from June 1996 to the present.
Most recently, the city was criticized for misplacing the lobbyist file of Dennis Spaniol, executive director of West County's Council of Industries.
The documents eventually were found and the city apologized, but Spaniol said he wants the offices of the city clerk and the city attorney included in Stephens' current probe.
"It's my view that this was a deliberate and malicious act to discredit me or destroy my reputation," Spaniol said.
Councilman Tom Butt, who long has argued for the city to improve access to public records, said he doubts the problems will go away.
"There's always been a real resistance to change and to any kind of records management," said Butt, who sued to get public information from the city in 1994. "They've obviously got problems and not just in the recreation department. The whole place is like little fiefdoms. There's very little central control or management of those operations."
Anna Vega, the city's new finance director, said that she is surprised the city doesn't have better financial controls and recommends that computer software be upgraded in the finance department. It's a $200,000 expense that she said could be paid for out of this year's budget.
The audit comes at the same time as the city is working with a Chevron-financed consultant to improve the way it does business. Chevron, as part of a property tax settlement with the city, has agreed to pay the city $1 million and to help it find ways to operate more efficiently.
About $275,000 of that money is paying for a study now being conducted by Arthur Andersen Consulting and former Oakland City Manager Henry Gardner, now a municipal management consultant.
The study, now in its seventh month, so far has produced little in the way of long-term solutions to saving money and increasing revenue. Some council members have expressed disappointment.
Stephens' recommendations are in line with the aim of greater efficiency, said Leveron Bryant, assistant city manager, and could go a long way toward addressing some of the council's concerns.
"There is a need to revise some of our current practices and ways of doing things, some of which haven't been changed in decades," said Bryant who is plotting the course for change with Stephens. "What we put in place will not only apply to the recreation and parks department but apply citywide."
Vega and other department heads also will help implement changes, Turner said.
"I am thrilled that we are going to get a system that will assure us that money is handled properly," Mayor Rosemary Corbin said. "I'm very concerned that things be handled in a very careful manner. I'm eager to get this in place, and I think the employees are too."
This is not the first time serious problems have surfaced in a city department in recent years.
The Richmond Housing Authority made the federal list of troubled housing authorities four years in a row. And the Private Industry Council was the target of council and public criticism in the early 1990s amid allegations of misconduct, poor management, sexual harassment and racism.
"I'm not opposed to doing things better than we've done in the past," Councilman Nat Bates said. "We can learn from what's happened (with) the auditorium and improve accountability overall."