Will City Auditor Get Teeth to Chew on Metro Contracts?

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l-r; Jim Shulman, Councilman at Large and Michelle Hernandez-Lane, Chief Diversity Officer

By Peter White

 

NASHVILLE, TN — After failing for eight years to reach the city’s diversity goals, Griffith and Strong of Atlanta will soon deliver a third outside review of the city’s Procurement Nondiscrimination Program. The firm helped write the ordinance creating the program and a minority business assistance office in 2008.

Michelle Jenkins, lead author of the latest Griffin and Strong report, is still crunching the numbers and said the report should be done by mid-March. It will gauge how far the city has come towards fair contracting practices.

As with earlier benchmark reports, Jenkins said she looks at the data to make a comparison.  “What did it look like last time and what does it look like now?” The 2016 benchmark report will offer possible solutions to obtain better outcomes but will not be a financial audit. Critics say an audit is needed to help fix the problem of the program’s continued failure to meet its goals.

Mayor Megan Barry hired Kaleidoscope of Chicago to improve the city’s diversity efforts, but the solutions may lie closer to home than Chicago or Atlanta and cost a lot less.

At Large Councilman Jim Shulman wants to beef up the city’s audit department. He  is sponsoring a bill that proposes: “to grant full investigative authority to the Metropolitan Auditor in order to allow for independent audits and reviews of metropolitan Government departments, boards, and commissions as well as the performance of contracts by entities that contract with the Metropolitan Government.”

Shulman introduced the bill because of information he received about financial improprieties at a city-owned assisted living center in Bordeaux called Autumn Hills, formerly known as Knowles Home for the Aged.

Shulman asks, “Who is responsible when there is a question of how city funds were spent, who is the right person to go to and do they have the investigative authority to find out?”

The right person is city auditor Mark Swann. A six-member Audit Committee oversees Swan’s office but there’s no city code that grants Swann the authority he needs to investigate and perform an audit like the one Shulman wanted done at Autumn Hills.

“We need someone who can delve into the issues, do the research, find the facts, and give us an answer to make sure everything is ok or not. I realized I needed to find someone who had that authority and I couldn’t find the right person,” Shulman said.

His bill will be debated in the Budget and Finance Committee and the Rules and Confirmations Committee and have a second reading on Feb.21. It will come up for a third reading and final vote on March 7. Chances of the bill passing look good, according to Large Councilman John Cooper. Cooper leads the Budget and Finance Committee and is an Audit Committee member. The mayor’s office responded by email saying the mayor is neutral on the bill.

Nashville Chief Diversity Officer Michelle Hernandez-Lane headed the BAO until she was promoted last year. Lane sent an email response to questions regarding Metro’s diversity efforts. Those questions and Lane’s full response can be found at: tntribune.com

In part, Lane wrote: “During my time with the Business Assistance Office, we worked closely with many companies to try and expand Metro’s procurement opportunities. While there can be challenges and difficulties in any procurement process, much of which is based on rules and laws established by the State of Tennessee and the Metro Council, I am proud of the work that we did at the BAO to expand opportunities.“

Alex Coure, a minority businessman, doesn’t buy it “Minority businesses missed out on numerous contracts during her tenure. A thorough audit of Metro’s purchasing department would identity all the incidents of improprieties that I have been complaining about for four years,” he said.

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