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Hillsborough County struggles to fill auditor post

TAMPA — Hillsborough County voters saw fit 10 years ago to create a new position in local government to ferret out waste and inefficiency.

The internal performance auditor was supposed to be a profit center, paying for itself by identifying ways that county government could save money by implementing best practices.

For the past two years, commissioners have indeed saved money — by keeping the position open, albeit unintentionally. Despite an ailing economy with still high unemployment, they've had difficulty filling the six-figure job after two failed searches since firing former auditor Jim Barnes in May 2010.

"It's a hard job to fill because we don't really know what we want," says Commissioner Mark Sharpe.

Commissioners are scheduled to consider three new finalists in January after hiring a head-hunting firm to assist with their latest search. All three have Florida ties, with one having authored a scathing review that helped speed the departure of Barnes.

Whoever wins the job will have a tall task.

Barnes was just the second person to hold the position after voters approved its creation in 2002. The job was promoted by community activists, including the late Ralph Hughes, a proponent of smaller government who was posthumously accused of failure to pay millions in personal and corporate income taxes in the years leading up to his death in 2008.

Like his predecessor, Barnes was faulted for both the quality and quantity of his work. Both he and predecessor Kathleen Mathews also fell victim to the whims of individual commissioners, who sent them on personal vendettas with departments or outside agencies whom they distrusted.

"I think the biggest basic challenge was the failure of the first two internal auditors," said Richard Tarr, the auditing consultant who performed a critical peer review of Barnes' work and is now one of the finalists to replace him. "I think people are a little gun-shy about what the job is going to involve."

During his tenure, Barnes unearthed a secret 1 percent pay raise that former County Administrator Pat Bean accepted and that was blessed by former County Attorney Renee Lee in 2007, which helped lead to the departures of both. But much of his prior work was faulted for including faulty assumptions that led to findings even some of his three-person staff questioned.

When commissioners fired him, they decided to do some soul-searching over what they were looking for in an auditor. They brought in Tarr, an auditing consultant from the Orlando area.

Tarr helped the commission come up with a job description for the position, which by and large didn't exist. He recommended creation of an auditing committee that would help craft a work plan for the office then review its work as a form of quality assurance, and serve as a buffer between the auditor and commissioners.

Rules were set governing how often commissioners individually could direct the auditor's work.

"Unfortunately, some of the worst fears that opponents of this office had have materialized through the years," said Commission Chairman Ken Hagan in February, echoing a line he has used repeatedly to suggest the auditor had become a witch-hunt arm of the commission.

In 2010, voters approved a change of the office's title to internal auditor, essentially broadening the types of analyses it can conduct. The change by voters also eliminated an initial role the auditor had as budget analyst, an inherent conflict for an office charged with reviewing some of the county's spending habits.

In addition to Tarr, the finalists are Kenneth Goff, the top-ranked candidate and vice president of internal audit services since June 2006 at Affiliated Computer Services Inc., based in Dallas, Texas; and Michelle Leonhardt, director of internal audit at WellCare Health Plans Inc in Tampa.

Goff previously worked for KPMG in Fort Lauderdale after three different auditing or analyst jobs within Florida government. He is a graduate of the University of Florida. Leonhardt, a University of South Florida graduate, was promoted to her current position in February after six years at WellCare and has previously worked with KPMG and Hacker, Johnson & Smith, both in Tampa.

Tarr has been a self-employed auditing/information technology and training consultant for 21 years and previously held jobs with the Institute of Internal Auditors in Altamonte Springs and the Walt Disney Co.

Some commissioners have expressed a desire to forgo a search and offer the job to Tarr directly, given his familiarity with the county and the office. Others expressed concerned that doing so would create a conflict of interest given his role critiquing the office, coming up with recommendations to fix it then advising subsequent searches to fill the post.

Tarr noted that his consulting contract with the county ended around the time the latest job search began and he put his name in like everyone else, erasing a conflict.

"At the time I was a consultant for the board, it was not in my mind to be a candidate for this position," Tarr said. But with his work for the county done, and the committee still looking for candidates, he said he thought, "this is ridiculous. This is a good job. Someone ought to take this job."

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this story. Bill Varian can be reached at varian@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3387.

Hillsborough County struggles to fill auditor post 12/28/12 [Last modified: Friday, December 28, 2012 11:36pm]

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