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Hire independent city auditor

Denton is no longer a small town with a city government fraught with back channels to accommodate “insiders” who want something — funding for a cause or a job for an unqualified relative — regardless of whether it makes sense.

The city budget for 2016-17 will be more than $1 billion for the first time in history. That much money attracts the attention of a lot of businesses, nonprofits and individuals who want something at City Hall.

It’s time for the City Council and Denton voters to impose more accountability on the myriad municipal employees charged with making City Hall run efficiently and economically.

And the best way to impose accountability is through the hiring of an independent city auditor charged with turning over rocks and seeing what’s underneath. The job includes writing risk assessments, financial reports, safeguarding of assets and compliance with laws, regulations and contracts.

Make no mistake about it: An independent city auditor is not a beloved figure among City Hall colleagues. If the auditor is doing the job properly, he/she is constantly critiquing operations based on objective measures of effectiveness and efficiency. And that makes city department heads nervous.

The city employed an independent auditor until 2010. Then, without any real rationale, his contract was not renewed. City Council has not hired a new auditor in the six years since.

All the public has gotten to replace the auditor are vague promises about outside auditors coming into city government to review financial books and operations. But annual financial audits conducted by outside accountants have always been done to satisfy municipal bond investors that the books are clean.

Some people who favor hiring a new city auditor say the City Council is violating a Denton City Charter requirement by leaving the position vacant.

But that is not true.

Section 6.04 of the city charter says, “The city auditor shall be appointed by the council and shall serve at the pleasure of the council, and shall perform such auditing duties as may be assigned from time to time by the council, or by the city manager at the direction of the council.”

The word “shall” is crucial. Legal eagles tell us that the word “must” should be used to make the council’s appointment of an auditor a mandatory requirement. In legal language, the word “shall” is akin to the word “may.” It allows City Council to appoint an auditor, or not.

We have no reason to believe that waste, fraud and abuse of city funds is rampant at Denton City Hall. But common sense tells us that a watchdog city auditor would have an easier time catching such things than an occasional outside auditor with a restricted mission that doesn’t cover all operations.

Therefore, it would be smart to craft a ballot proposition to change the city charter to make it mandatory for City Council to hire an auditor with reporting responsibility to a committee of council members or to a board comprised of citizens appointed by council members.

If this proposal passes public muster, we recommend making all of the auditor’s reports available online for the public.

This is part and parcel of our regular call for more transparency at City Hall, which includes reducing the number of private executive sessions during weekly council meetings and conducting more public discussions in an open forum.