Vancouver City Councillor Sarah Kirby-Yung on the process and pitfalls behind the scenes along the way of creating a new office.
Discussion about the City of Vancouver’s ballooning budget and calls for greater transparency have echoed more loudly of late. It’s not hard to see why; residents struggle to understand where their money is going as taxes continued to increase and services appeared to decline.
In October, 2019 our new Council voted in favour of a motion brought forward by my fellow NPA Councillor Colleen Hardwick calling for the establishment of an independent Auditor General Office for the City, which I was thrilled to support. This was a key campaign commitment we made towards greater transparency at City Hall.
I believe this would be a critical move. An Independent Auditor General (IAG) can provide residents and businesses with assurance that public funds are spent appropriately, and that public services are delivered effectively. Canadian cities with IAGs like Ottawa, Toronto, Edmonton and Halifax have demonstrated a net positive impact to city budgets over time. Once in place, a Vancouver IAG will provide additional oversight of an operating budget that sits at over a billion and a half dollars, not to mention hundreds of millions in the annual capital budget.
An independent Auditor General’s job is to establish transparent, accountable review and reporting on behalf of the public. They are directly accountable to Council but independent of, and they are fully independent of City staff who cannot direct or influence their work in any way. By its very nature, the IAG function is independent in order to maintain the integrity of the office.
Work got underway with the establishment of a cross-partisan Working Group, recognizing that this effort needed broad support across Council. The group included six councillors: three NPA, two Green, and one Independent.
Our group hired and worked with the Canadian Audit and Accountability Foundation to develop the framework for this new office, and report back to Council on the structure needed to move a Vancouver IAG forward. In July, the Working Group brought their recommendations forward that Council again approved.
We were well on our way. Or were we?
Our Working Group was on track to bring the next steps to Council, including establishing a Recruitment Committee, an ongoing Auditor General Committee of Council, and enacting bylaws. But the outgoing City Manager raised a series of concerns: time demands on senior staff when asked for info by the new IAG; suggesting City HR be involved in setting AG office staff salaries; having City staff attend IAG meetings; and the cost of the office.
The Working Group fulfilled their task independently of City staff, with support from the Canadian Audit and Accountability Foundation and the City Solicitor – and that was the point. There was never any expectation, nor was it appropriate, for the City Manager’s office to endorse recommendations for hiring, bylaws and setup of the office.
As Councillor Hardwick said, “The most fundamental characteristic and principle of the auditor general model is independence. The principle of independence means [the auditor general’s office] must be independent from both City administration and City Council. This means that City administration should not control or influence the Office’s budget, staffing, or mode of reporting, and City Council should not direct the subjects to be audited or the content of audit reports.”
Thankfully, Council’s commitment to the principle of independence prevailed through this discussion, as well as the next proposed amendment from Councillor Boyle that the Recruitment Committee recommendation for the new hire must be unanimous – a red herring, in my opinion, that felt like an unnecessary roadblock to impede the hiring process. After all, Councillors have been working well together on this already. Even hiring of a new City Manager (also underway) isn’t held to that same standard of unanimity, nor does the Vancouver Charter allow for requiring it.
There’s still work to be done, but thankfully the City can look forward to having a new AG starting in 2021.
A non-politico who finds herself in politics, Sarah Kirby-Yung is a first-time Vancouver City Councillor and former Vancouver Park Board Chair and Commissioner.