Ethics and elections commissions: What's Audit got to do with it?
By Melissa Alderson
DOES YOUR CITY HAVE AN ETHICS AND ELECTIONS COMMISSION?
Many large cities have a dedicated function to respond to elections issues and internal whistleblower complaints. We are fortunate here in Seattle to have the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission (SEEC) to handle this body of work. I was curious, what specific kinds of issues does the SEEC deal with? Are there themes that come up again and again that point to some larger issue? And what risks lie out there, waiting to be explored by a curious auditor? I met with Wayne Barnett, Executive Director of the SEEC, to learn more about what kinds of issues his office tackles and ask what he sees as the biggest risks ahead.
NUTS AND BOLTS
Who is the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission and what do they do?
The Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission (SEEC) is made up of an Executive Director, six staff members, and a seven-member Commission that can interpret, administer, and enforce four City of Seattle codes:
- Ethics: conflicts of interest, use of city resources, gifts and favors;
- Elections: campaign contributions, initiative petitions, referendum petitions, election pamphlets, petition signatures;
- Lobbying: paid lobbyists must register and disclose certain financial information;
- Whistleblower: employees can report waste of public funds, unsafe practices, and violations of the law.
The SEEC receives complaints related to the four codes, conducts investigations, and recommends decisions to the Commission. The group participates in monthly public meetings where they discuss current complaints, hear from city residents, and deliberate on the outcome.
How does the process work?
As Executive Director, Wayne said he must take action on every complaint he receives, though he has the discretion to decide whether or not to open a full investigation on the complaint. If whistleblowers or other stakeholders are not happy with his decision about whether to open an investigation, or the result of an investigation, they can appeal to the seven Commission members. Wayne said that about 80 percent of their work comes from City employee whistleblower complaints, but that many of these end up being personnel matters that his office does not have the authority to address.
What penalties can the SEEC impose?
When someone is found guilty of violating one of the four codes, the SEEC will usually issue a fine. To establish the amount of the financial penalty, Wayne relies on similar cases from the past, uses that amount as a starting point, and then adjusts for inflation. The SEEC is also authorized to explore non-monetary penalties, such as seeking to get a contract rescinded, or recommending disciplinary action to a department director. In most cases the SEEC can reach a settlement with the guilty party, but if not, the case will go to a hearing.
WHAT VALUE DOES AN ETHICS AND ELECTIONS COMMISSION PROVIDE LOCAL GOVERNMENT AND ITS CONSTITUENTS?
Wayne stressed two important aspects of their work that bring value to Seattle (Auditor’s note: these concepts may sound familiar!):
We all know the importance of independence, but the code that establishes the SEEC takes extra precautions to shield the SEEC from political pressure. SEEC Commission members and staff are prohibited from being part of any City of Seattle election campaign or political party. Commission members are appointed in part by the City Council and in part by the Mayor; the seventh member is appointed by the other six. The Commission appoints the Executive Director to a six-year term, and that person can only be removed for cause, and only by the Commission. Wayne believes the independence of his office and the way in which he and his office are shielded from political influence is their greatest asset.
Everything the SEEC does is public, and this transparency adds weight and muscle to the SEEC’s rulings. The fines they issue (usually a few hundred dollars apiece) are punitive in nature, but their main purpose is to educate the public about the law. Wayne says that in most cases, the public scrutiny and shame in violating the code is punishment enough, as there are often further consequences that occur. Bringing issues to light and to the public’s attention is an important area of value.
HOW CAN PERFORMANCE AUDITORS BENEFIT FROM PARTNERING WITH ETHICS AND ELECTIONS?
Although much of the above resonated with me as an auditor, Wayne told me that he sees our organizations as having very little overlap between our missions. The SEEC focuses on investigating individual events and specific people for specific violations. As performance auditors, we focus our efforts on examining systems and processes and addressing issues at the systemic level. However, we share the values of independence and transparency, and use these two principles as tools to highlight important issues and promote change.
Understanding the differences in our roles is important, as topics occasionally arise that seem to span both agencies. For example, a whistleblower alerted the SEEC to an issue with overtime at the Seattle Police Department. Wayne investigated and immediately recognized the issue was much larger than one or two employees. Our office got involved, and the result was two in-depth audit reports with 52 recommendations, culminating in the Seattle Police Department changing its overtime policies and procedures, and improving their information systems. I would say that is a pretty good outcome from a brief discussion with two partners who share the same values and goals!
In another example, a whistleblower alerted the SEEC to an issue related to utility payments. The water utility was overcharging customers over a period of several years, despite management being aware of this error. Wayne contacted us and we again issued an audit, helping recommend a solution to this longstanding issue.
Another way an Ethics and Elections Commission can help the audit office is to share information about the types of complaints they are receiving. This alerts auditors to potential areas for future audits. To this end, I asked Wayne a question that he said he receives a lot: what are the most common complaints you receive? I specifically wanted to know if there was more that performance auditors could do to reduce ethics and election code violations, or if there were systemic issues that were lurking in the dark, waiting to be addressed.
Wayne said that many of the complaints he receives from residents have to do with City of Seattle employees being perceived (or actually) misusing city resources or city time. This includes things like seeing a city car in a casino parking lot for a few hours during the day. Or a worker taking a nap in a city car in a grocery store parking lot. During election years, the SEEC receives many complaints about elected officials reportedly using city time for election purposes.
Wayne also said he wonders about an upcoming recession, and the risks that come with an economic downturn. For example, some employees may be motivated to get a second job, and it would be important for city government to have clear rules in place about under what conditions this is acceptable. Wayne also told me that nepotism can be an issue, especially in smaller cities, and he recommends having a clear process and structure to prevent nepotism from affecting decision-making.
Having a dedicated Ethics and Elections Commission is unique to large cities because of the infrastructure required to support it, which means that smaller cities may have to fulfill these functions in different ways. However, where Ethics and Elections Commissions do exist, they can be important sources for identifying both specific issues for future audits and system-wide trends that warrant further research.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Melissa Alderson has been with the Seattle Office of City Auditor since 2013. She is a Certified Government Auditing Professional, and is currently attending the University of Washington to earn a Master of Public Administration degree. Melissa serves on the ALGA Publications Committee and enjoys reading all the interesting articles submitted by ALGA members.