Audit Plan Gains Traction Among Costa Mesa Leaders

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A proposal by Costa Mesa City Councilman Steve Mensinger to establish performance audits of city government operations has gained traction among his council colleagues and some frequent critics of the Republican council’s majority. Unions, however, are suspicious of the proposal’s intentions.

The stated goal of the audits would be to ensure that city is providing services “as efficiently as possible” and could lead to “cost savings,” “additional revenue” and “improved accountability,” according to a city staff report.

Mensinger says the process is used in most private businesses as well as the county and at least six cities and makes sense from a good-government standpoint.

“In the end, transparency is one of the primary objectives in good government,” he said in an interview. “In order to have transparency you have to have the ability to look at what you’re doing and share with the public if you’re utilizing best practices.

“Good government always has to be changing, always evolving, always asking questions,” he added.

Mensinger’s effort received support from two prominent opponents of the council majority. “I actually think this is a good idea,” said Sandy Genis, a former Costa Mesa mayor. “So…you guys are doing some things that are good.”

Genis suggested that the city look into having its own independent auditing staff. She was the only audience member to speak on the item.

And Councilwoman Wendy Leece, the council’s lone dissenter on its large-scale privatization efforts, agreed to bring the item back for more discussion.

But union leaders are far from sold on the proposal. They suspect that the council majority would simply use the audits to further justify an ideologically driven effort to outsource much of city government. They added that recommendations for improvement by the union and community members have been repeatedly ignored.

“Ordinarily, OCEA and CMCEA would be supportive of responsible, collaborative efforts to make government more efficient,” said Orange County Employees Association spokeswoman Jennifer Muir, referring to the county and city employees’ unions.

“But this council has given no indication they are prepared to act either responsibly or collaboratively,” she added. “Likewise, the city can look to generate new revenues through means other than the proposed audit process.”

The City Council voted unanimously last week to have city staff prepare another report on the issue for discussion and possible action at one of the next two council meetings. The proposal includes hiring one or more outside contractors for the work at a cost of $100,000.

The discussion so far has centered around increasing business and fire license revenue to the city, resolving outstanding workers’ compensation claims and using existing resources more effectively.

While Costa Mesa businesses have increased their revenues over the years, the city’s license fees have remained the same, Mensinger said. “How can we have businesses that have higher revenue today but pay the same fee?” he asked.

That idea has been discussed for years. In 2010, the city’s employees union suggested 19 cost-saving and revenue-raising measures, including changes to employee work schedules and increasing business license fees to the county average. The Nordstrom department store in Santa Ana pays $50,000 per year in license fees, but the store in Costa Mesa pays just $300 per year, according to the union.

Last week’s staff report also cited common criticisms of performance audits, including that they have an “adversarial nature,” intensify “distrust and secrecy” and add “another layer of bureaucracy.”

Mensinger acknowledges that audits are often contentious but says the benefits are worth it.

“It’s not always comfortable, but at the end of the day what comes out of that is good,” he said. “It’s a way for independent functions to be brought into the government sphere.”

— NICK GERDA

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