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COLUMBUS, Ga. — City councilors just approved a new plan to audit major city departments from the top-down, beginning with the office of City Manager Isaiah Hugley.
The departments prioritized by the new plan have not been audited in many years.
Now, after a unanimous vote from city council, the city’s most influential departments are at the very top of the newly-structured audit list. Those five departments include the City Manager's office, Finance, Human Resources, Workforce Development, and Parks & Recreation.
Discussion among city councilors and the city’s internal auditor specifically placed Hugley’s office first-in-line, noting the large sums of public funds that flow through Hugley’s office and how long it’s been since its last audit.
During the city council meeting held on July 25, 2023, officials were impressed with the productive findings of an audit of Columbus Fire & EMS. The audit, presented by internal auditor Donna McGinnis, identified several resources needed by the department. The audit also included suggestions of how the city can better optimize resource allocation to help better serve the fire department and the citizens of Columbus.
Inspired by the findings of McGinnis’ presentation and the power of what an audit can reveal, city councilor Joanne Cogle (District 7) asked the following question to McGinnis :
“There seems to be a lot of money that’s going in and out of the ci … situation. I completely agree with Glenn (Davis) on looking into that … I know you sent us a list of departments that had been audited and ones that needed to be audited, in order of when they have been audited last … We’re trying to get our city back on track and do the right thing by the citizens, and I was wondering if you could recommend off the top of your head — two, three, four departments — that might need to be looked at next.”
In reply, McGinnis stated that there are about five departments that really come to mind — all of which were the city’s most major and influential offices that hadn’t been audited for many years.
“I would say,” McGinnis began, “in general there’s about five of them that come to mind. It’s been a while since we’ve been in Parks & Rec. That’s something that we ought to do sometime soon … The Workforce Investment Office is a place where we’ve not been in a very long time … It has been a very long time — and I’m talking since like 2008 — since we were last in finance and the city manager’s office. H.R. (human resources) is another place we’ve not been in a very long time.”
McGinnis then clarified that the conduct of an audit is not indicative of wrongdoing, but rather akin to a doctor visit for the financial health of city departments.
“This is not for fear,” McGinnis said. “It's not for anxiety. It’s for a clean bill of health. It’s not with that intent. In the two areas we’re currently working, we’re finding a whole lot to be proud of. We really are. And if there are some pain points, folks are comfortable saying it out loud. When you ultimately see those reports, you're going to grow to understand that they’re probably healthier for having had those discussions.”
In response to McGinnis’ request to perform audits on the departments she mentioned, placing emphasis on how long it has been since the city manager’s office and the finance department have been audited, Cogle made the following motion:
“Can I make the recommendation,” Cogle began, “and my colleagues can jump in too, to make a motion to start at the top and work our way down. So if we break down the departments that haven’t been audited in the most amount of time, and we look at them in order of importance, and then work our way down. So I guess, I mean, I would say the City Manager is probably the most important person in the city.”
Cogle then humorously apologized to Mayor Henderson, with a smile on her face.
“Nope, we’re good,” Henderson replied in the most beta way he possibly could.
“And then,” Cogle continued, “add in finance and then go from there with H.R. and work our way down. So I guess I’d like to make a motion if that’s okay with my colleagues.”
Councilor Toyia Tucker (District 4) immediately seconded Cogle’s motion, making the motion eligible for a vote of the council. Additionally, councilor Glenn Davis (District 2) also moved to second the motion as he peered on with a look of sincere approval.
Henderson interjected by recommending that councilors allow McGinnis to consider the required allocation of resources needed to conduct the audits, and then allow McGinnis to come back to council with that information through a formal recommendation before they made a decision.
Councilors quickly called out the fact that McGinnis was just asked what major departments she believed would be audited and had quite literally just told council what those offices were — which is precisely what Cogle’s motion was for: to place a sequence of priority on the order in which McGinnis believed departments should be audited. The information Henderson was requesting had just been provided five minutes prior.
Cogle tactfully scooped up the mayor’s bunt by elaborating on that fact, making the following point to Henderson:
“I mean, I think in the document she (McGinnis) sent you as well as the rest of the council on when the last audit was done, I think that’s probably appropriate,” Cogle said to Henderson.
Councilor Glenn Davis (District 2) then offered comment, praising Cogle’s motion. Davis encouraged councilors to consider the power of what the audits could provide for the city and its citizens, catching Cogle’s throw and redirecting the play back into the infield.
“You know, I think Councilor Cogle’s hit the nail on the head … Do y’all remember when we audited Parks & Rec a long time ago and things were in disarray, and we improved the point-of-sale system, and it just really changed things big time? Do you remember that? … You know, it’s relevant to me that there’s an awful lot of money that flows through various departments in this government. And the one we’re probably talking about is one of those offices where there’s a lot of money. It’s not just collections and billings, but also business licenses and other things. Money’s flowing through there, and then it flows to another channel — and I can't sit here and tell you how that channel is going, but I think it’s important that we understand that and that we look into these things, and make sure that everything is moving in the right direction — appropriately, effectively, and efficiently. And most importantly, (we need) responsibility and accountability at the same time; that everything’s being done right.”
It was very obvious that Davis was specifically referring to the city manager’s office.
“If there are departments — and I can’t sit here and tell you the departments — but if there are departments and they have not been audited in a long time, then those should be high priorities on the list.”
Councilor Tyson Begly (District 10) then asked McGinnis to name the top five departments she believed would be most beneficial to audit next. McGinnis replied as follows:
“I was asked to share those (departments) that I thought were — not just simply the oldest — but perhaps would benefit most from having the audit opportunity. And I’ve given those. And that would be Parks & Rec, it would be your Workforce Office, it would be Finance, it would be H.R., and, uh, the City Manager’s Office, because there’s a whole lot that goes on in there.”
McGinnis’ voice stammered as she said the name of Hugley’s office as he sat just ten feet in front of her. Her voice genuinely stammered in a way that depicted fear, which is a very important observation to note. Ask yourself why the city’s internal auditor would be afraid of publicly stating that she believed Isaiah Hugley’s office needed to be audited while standing in front of the man himself.
THE PLAY TO FIRST
It was at that time that Councilor Judy Thomas (District 9) decided to gracefully redirect the conversation back to the matter at hand: the motion Cogle made which had already been seconded but was still awaiting a vote.
“Madame Clerk,” Thomas asked, “Would you read the motion that’s on the table?”
Clerk of Council Sandra Davis read the motion aloud as follows:
“Mr. Mayor, the motion on the table is from Councilor Cogle, seconded by Councilor Tucker. The motion is to start at the top with the City Manager’s Office, Finance, and H.R.”
Thomas then voiced her opinion that she believed the conversation may have been a bit premature, stating that usually the auditor would bring their own request to council and not the other way around. However, other councilors reminded Thomas that McGinnis did in fact bring such a request through both the document she delivered to the mayor and council and the information she delivered through her presentation. Thomas ultimately agreed.
Mayor Henderson, however, remained clutched in his procedural lockstep of ‘we’ve always done it this way so the auditor should have to waste more of her time again today.’ Henderson made the following statement:
“I think the process has always been that she would bring (her request) and then council would authorize those audits.”
Councilor Crabb loudly interjected, brilliantly and succinctly stating the obvious for those in the room who had apparently been asleep for the past half hour:
“She just brought it! She. Just. Brought. It.” Crabb rightfully exclaimed.
Henderson was routed, turning back away from his approach to second base and running as fast as he could back to first.
TAGGED OUT AT THE BAG
“Well,” Henderson said, staring downward into his desk in defeat, “there’s a motion and a second to start at the top with the City Manager’s Office, I think, and then work its way down through Finance, then H.R., and Parks & Rec.”
Henderson then called for the vote.
“All in favor of that motion, please say aye.” The ayes rang out in unison.
“Are there any opposed?” Henderson asked, but was met with not a single response.
The motion passed unanimously among all members present, including an affirmative vote from City Councilor Walker Garrett (District 8) who was attending the meeting virtually.
While all other officials at the table remained leaning forward in their chairs with engagement, Hugley sat back in his chair alone with his arms spread wide atop its armrests, gazing on in disbelief like a man watching his house burn down. He didn’t say a word.
Henderson then looked at McGinnis and gave her the following instruction to conduct the audits:
“Alright,” Henderson said to McGinnis reluctantly, “You’ve got authorization. Start (with the) City Manager, H.R., Finance, Parks & Rec.”
“Thank you,” McGinnis replied. “I’d be happy to do that. The team is ready. We will make it happen. It’s just been a long time, and I suspect it’s for the benefit of all of us.”
Stay with the Muckraker as we continue to bring you coverage on this story as it develops more in the weeks to come.
Facts are stubborn things — and we’ll keep publishing them, whether city officials like them or not.
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