What Happens When an Auditor Sits on the Other Side of the Table: My Experience as a Disaster Service Worker
By Tracy Yarlott-Davis
On March 16th, I packed up a small amount of office supplies from my desk in Berkeley City Hall and brought them home to my breakfast nook table. I was joined in my 2-bedroom bungalow by my wife and our 2.5-year-old. The shelter-in-place order was supposed to last for two weeks but I remember removing all of my son’s things from his preschool cubby on the last day, all the back-up clothes and the other little things that always ended up there. My mind was whispering that we would not be back to his school or my office for quite some time. Now it’s August. I’m still in the bungalow, but we managed to clean out a closet and put a desk in there. We call it the “cloffice” and it’s a big step up from the table in the breakfast nook.
For the rest of March, I diligently made progress on the fieldwork plan for my ambitious workforce retention audit. Then the shelter-in-place order got extended and we watched New York City’s cases and death toll rise and rise. Hiring freezes popped up in every public agency and we all heard rumors that the local big tech companies were beginning massive layoffs. We realized we were in this for the long haul and everything we thought about 2020 was going to change, including my audit.
Just as I was coming to the realization that my audit would need to pause, the City Auditor asked if I would be willing to work in a different capacity. The Emergency Operations Center (EOC) needed me. I’d signed an acknowledgement of my role as a disaster service worker for almost ten years, standard for public employees in California. I always thought it would be something like handing out meals after an earthquake, but it turns out there’s still a need for auditors in an emergency.
I became the newest member of EOC Finance. I was disappointed to learn that there were no windbreakers and that due to the pandemic we weren’t even getting morning donuts from the command center. But I did what performance auditors are good at—I learned about an entirely new topic quickly. Before that day, I had little to no knowledge about FEMA funding, other state and federal disaster funding, supplemental food programs, or personal protective equipment. I had no idea that my city had a mass fatality plan, let alone that it needed updating to account for a pandemic rather than an earthquake. But I dove right in and found that my years as a performance auditor for the City of Berkeley were incredibly helpful. I knew how data was collected and stored by our accounting software. I knew the basics of all of the active union contracts. I knew how payroll was coded. I had professional relationships in a variety of departments that allowed me to ask staff, also juggling home and family and stress, difficult questions and get truthful answers.
My role in the EOC has been primarily to ensure that our pandemic response and expenses are documented in a way to maximize our reimbursements from state and federal agencies. I now tell staff handling the pandemic response that if I were the auditor coming in, I’d want to know the rationale for why they made a certain decision and what supporting documentation I'd want to see. I wrote policies for disaster time coding and advised staff on the pros and cons of paid overtime or compensatory time. I now speak to a variety of stakeholders about criteria, condition, and cause without necessarily using those words. I’ve discovered that the concepts are much more universal than I anticipated prior to my time in the EOC. As part of my work, I also document the decisions and actions of many city staff in the emergency operation made in the early days of our COVID-19 response back in January. The response ramped up rapidly and is continuing on with no end in sight. Staff handling the response have already begun to forget why they made one decision over another seven months ago. By interviewing them and obtaining supporting documentation, we can be prepared for grant and reimbursement opportunities and provide stakeholders with a robust picture of why the City did what it did when it did it.
Auditors are trained to see the bigger picture and to have strong listening and observation skills. We also have a broad understanding of many issues. For example in June, I toured the trailer site the City set up for those who were presumed positive but were either unhoused or living in congregate housing. I was joined by the staff of our health, housing, and community services department as well as staff from the non-profit providing the day-to-day management of the site. I was able to bring a different perspective and identified that the trailers had steps that could be difficult for some people. I’d never audited anything related to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) but I knew something was off. After almost ten years in local government auditing, I’ve learned to follow that gut feeling. The next day, I spoke with a City Attorney who was a member of the Finance section and he sprang into action. Turns out those steps were not ADA compliant. Staff were able to ensure that we had comparable accommodations for those that needed them and that everyone was aware of that option so they could find unhoused people a safe, clean place to isolate.
The City Auditor and I developed a protocol for my work and how we could maintain the office’s independence, even as I became more involved in our City’s response to COVID-19. We still check in during our usual meeting time, albeit over Zoom. I update her weekly on my tasks with the EOC after they happen. She gets copies of the policies I draft when she attends senior leadership meetings but not before. We’ve documented these decisions over email so we have a record of the controls we put in place. We decided that I would never be involved in any audits of our City’s response to COVID-19. People thank her for me and tell her that I’m adding value by helping the City recover as many costs as possible.
I’m not used to being in the thick of things. Auditors tend to come in after to point out the mistakes, the cracks in the program or process. But now I’m the one with the spackle and the boards and the nails. It’s good in the time of uncertainty to be of use. There’s such a deep sense of satisfaction when I can help those that are doing difficult, dangerous work combatting the pandemic. I see how tired these staff members working on the emergency are, trying to hit the constantly moving target of a pandemic while managing children stuck at home and waiting in line to enter the grocery store. We’re all stressed and worried about ourselves, each other, and the community we serve.
I’ll admit that it’s been fun as well. I’ve learned more about disaster planning and response than I thought possible. I’ve formed new relationships with staff members across the city and laughed at bad jokes and dark humor in the face of a virus that has impacted all of us. I think I’ve also helped them understand the humanity of auditors and that we do this work because we care. I know I’ll go back to my side of the table soon but I’m thankful for everything I’ve learned and the people I’ve worked with. The City of Berkeley has some amazing staff doing powerful work. I’m proud to be among them.
About the Author
Tracy Yarlott-Davis, MPP is an Auditor II in the Berkeley City Auditor’s Office and has worked for local, elected auditors for over eight years. In the before times, she and her wife competed with their dogs in agility and flyball throughout the county. Her new hobby is finding places to hide the good snacks from her very observant son.