Scandal. Corruption. Conspiracy.
Those words have made frequent appearances in headlines and news reports over the past two years — and even more recently — as wrongdoings at state and local levels of government have come to light.
Ensuring that such problems do not occur is about accountability. Holding government accountable includes putting policies and procedures in place to enable advice and complaints to be carried out and follow-up investigations and audits to be carried out, if necessary, as quickly and efficiently as possible.
Two hotlines that are part of a pilot program and a proposed amendment to the Hawai’i County Charter that will appear on the ballot in this year’s general election aim to do just that.
The two direct lines — one for whistleblowers and abuse reports and the other for fraud and waste tips — was established at the County Auditor’s Office earlier this year. The pilot program runs until June 30, 2023.
To date, according to County Auditor Tyler Benner, his office has responded to 22 calls. While he can’t say much about the content of those calls, generally speaking there’s been a big learning curve. People were calling about problems who had other ways to answer their questions.
“As the line has gained some understanding,” Benner told Big Island Now, “we’ve had calls that are directed more towards the intent of the line.”
There are policies and procedures, template documents and additional infrastructure for the auditor’s office to develop when encountering new and unforeseen issues, so the helpline pilot program provides an opportunity to develop them. This includes the proposed charter amendment.
Bill 173, introduced by Puna Councilwoman Ashley Kierkiewicz and since approved by the Hawai’i County Council, would amend the county charter to add investigations into reports of fraud, waste and abuse in county operations as a function of the office. Its intent is to grant the office of the auditor the ability to perform routine non-audit activities and services outside of the annual audit plan.
Voters will have a chance to vote on the amendment in the Nov. 8 general election.
Kierkiewicz said during a May 31 meeting from the council’s finance committee when the bill was introduced that she was made aware of situations where the charter actually prevents the auditor’s office from investigating hotline requests.
“So I wanted to make sure that we had made strategic updates to the charter to enable the office of the auditor to be able to proceed with non-audit type services and activities,” she said.
It’s not that the current charter language erects barriers to investigating tricks that go through the hotlines, Benner said. Bill 173 would give his office the flexibility to decide how to move forward with them.
Audits involve significant commitments of time and resources and they have associated requirements to plan carefully, gather evidence and support all elements of a report. There are overlapping facets with a survey, but in contrast, a survey focuses more on variations and smaller isolated situations.
“So when a policy is well-developed, behavior that is inconsistent with what is expected of that policy, we recognize that as a potentially isolated circumstance,” Benner said. “Confronting this variance and then changing the behavior might be more appropriate than representing it as a larger problem affecting a larger population.”
By having both tools available – either an audit to government standards, which are set by the US Comptroller General, or an investigation – his office can move more quickly to produce shorter, more concise documents in response to advice from straight lines rather than going through meticulous planning and risk assessment, as auditing standards might otherwise require.
“So the point of the proposed charter amendment is that we need to be able to address different scale issues, and Bill 173 will help us achieve that,” Benner said, adding that the benefits of the measure would be that his office would have the ability to act quickly, produce concise reports and have more tools at its disposal to respond to advice.
The measure would also allow the auditor’s office to report to council and the public when the government is doing well. The office’s job, despite conventional opinion, is to be accurate, whether its findings are positive or negative.
“There are significant time and resource commitments to do an audit,” Benner said. “So if someone suspects something is wrong and we go in and see that it’s actually working beyond expectations, it’s not benefiting our reporting or our resources to spend a lot of time capturing that data. and if we did a smaller, more concise report, that would allow us to elaborate in those circumstances.
The auditor’s office assignment is to serve the council and residents of Hawai’i County by “promoting accountability, fiscal integrity, and transparency in local government.”
“Our work is to assist the county government in its stewardship of public resources, delivery of public services and stewardship of the public trust,” the mission statement reads.
While he doesn’t want to project onto the public what he thinks of government corruption and wrongdoing, Benner said there are obviously a lot of issues that have hit the press lately at different levels of state and local government.
“The public is tired of the county spending a lot of time building its trust to have periodic and repeated failures, and they want additional elements of accountability added,” the auditor said. “And we must do everything in our power to support these kinds of initiatives.”
Benner reiterated that accountability is the main focus.
“In order to bring maximum accountability to the process, we need to expand the tools at our disposal to be able to conduct these appropriate activities, and voting to approve Bill 173 would help us expand that toolbox.”
Hilo City Councilwoman Sue Lee Loy said at the May 31 finance committee meeting that often, “a bad apple spoils the group.” Benner agreed.
“Members of our government are also members of our community,” he said. “Most people come to work and invest in doing a good job and most individuals do their jobs well.”
The auditor’s office simply wants to be an accountability tool for those isolated circumstances where that doesn’t happen, Benner said, and “that shouldn’t diminish the good work these other people are doing.”
To report suspected government fraud or waste, call 808-480-8213. The whistleblower and abuse hotline number is 808-480-8279.