As the city tries to find an internal auditor, Commissioner Kimberly Mitchell came up with a potential solution on Monday — pay Palm Beach County’s Office of Inspector General the $500,000 year budgeted to West Palm’s internal audit department. But both a city commissioner and the Inspector General found the idea ironic, considering that West Palm Beach is one of 14 cities suing over required payments for Inspector General services. “We can’t talk to the Inspector General about anything because we have pending litigation,” Commissioner Ike Robinson said. Inspector General Sheryl Steckler, who was not at Monday’s commission workshop when the internal audit search was discussed, said later that, “if the lawsuit did not exist, this would be an easier conversation.”

Mitchell said that the city’s internal audit vacancy might make it “the perfect time” to discuss having the service performed by the Office of Inspector General. “Obviously they are not going to always understand every way and reason we do things in the city but it could be a good mechanism, to have that objectivity to question things that we just kind of take for granted inside the city over a period of years,” Mitchell said. Mayor Jeri Muoio reminded Mitchell that the internal auditor position is a requirement of the city’s charter and that residents would have to vote to eliminate the department. “It’s not that hard of a process to put on the ballot in March,” Mitchell countered. “The public in the city of West Palm has already asked for that extra separate audit function from the county. They supported that.”

While West Palm Beach residents in 2010 voted to go under the jurisdiction of the Inspector General, Steckler said audits are only one function of her office, along with investigations and contract oversight. Steckler said it would be possible to hire a larger audit staff funded by West Palm Beach, although it’s something she wouldn’t even consider until the lawsuit is resolved. While the city waits to fill its internal auditor post, it loses out on the potential of saving hundreds of thousands of dollars by correcting inefficiencies discovered by audits. Mitchell also suggested a “hybrid” system of hiring an internal auditor but paying the Office of Inspector General to hire staff to perform the work. Steckler said that wouldn’t be allowed.

“I can’t have my staff report to their internal auditor,” Steckler said. “That cannot work because of our independence.” If the city could change the charter and use the Office of Inspector General instead of an internal auditor, Steckler said, the city would have no control over the staff. While the internal auditor is supposed to be an independent position in the city, the auditor technically reports to the city commission. Long-time internal auditor Imogene Isaacs resigned in April, after Commissioner Keith James demanded accounts of her hourly actions and forbade her from meeting with anyone outside the city about city business without his permission. James, who as the city commission president serves as the audit committee chairman, said he was concerned with the audit department’s performance and was not trying to stifle the auditor.

The city chose a new internal auditor in September but negotiations broke down. James said this week that he has conducted a phone interview with Roger Stout, director of internal audit for Tampa and that Stout would visit the city soon. If the city cannot hire an auditor, both James and Muoio have suggested temporarily using an outside CPA firm until the position is filled.

To view the original article written by Andrew Abramson and several local responses, please go to The Palm Beach Post website.