TAMPA — At a glance, the referendum Tampa voters will decide on Nov. 8 might not seem far-reaching: Should the city change its charter to give the City Council the authority to order up internal audits of city operations?
But behind the question are bigger issues of accountability, the balance of power and the division of decision-making responsibility at City Hall.
If it passes, the referendum would give the council the authority to request internal audits of city operations by a super-majority vote of at least five of its seven members.
Each year, the city's internal auditors do about a dozen performance audits of various departments to identify risk, waste, fraud and inefficiency.
Council members have been talking about the audit process since early in 2013. That's when auditors issued an especially critical audit of Tampa's now-reorganized-out-of-existence Clean City program. After that, council members asked to see city audits when the mayor got them.
Under Florida law, internal audits do not become public records until they are final. At Tampa City Hall, that means they aren't final until the mayor signs them.
By 2015, it was clear Mayor Bob Buckhorn routinely had gotten audit reports but had waited months to sign and release them. In one case, an audit sat on his desk so long it got stale and had to be re-done as part of another audit. Asked why, Buckhorn said it helped him make sure his staff followed through with improvements to audited departments if he kept a copy of the report in front of him as a constant reminder to make sure reforms are carried out.
That's not necessary, council members have said. They say there's no reason Buckhorn couldn't release an audit when he gets it — before it becomes irrelevant — and write himself a note to make sure his administration follows up.
"It might be a year before we got the report," said council member Frank Reddick, a supporter of the proposed referendum. "I think that's where the frustration came in."
The move to give the council the authority to order audits of its own grew out of that discussion, partly as a way for the council to serve as a check and a balance to the mayor.
"The mayor has the power to be very selective in what department he might want audited," Reddick said. "It might not be necessary for us to use that authority, but we want to be sure we have it."
Buckhorn hopes voters reject the proposal.
"They ought to ask the very basic question: Are you satisfied with the way city government runs and the way the charter is structured and do we really need City Council meddling in the day-to-day operations of the city when they have no authority to do anything about whatever the audit says?"
Buckhorn has told the council he would be willing to have a conversation about creating a "more consistent delivery schedule" for audits, but thinks what's proposed is "far too broad."
Tampa has a strong-mayor form of government. The city's charter gives the mayor the sole responsibility and authority to run and make changes within city departments. It also bans the council from interfering with the work of any department or employee.
Buckhorn said this arrangement works because it gives voters a clear way to change city government if they want.
"If the voters don't like what the mayor's doing, every four years they can toss him out," he said.
A former City Council member, Buckhorn said he recalls how frustrating it can be to serve in government but not have a say in how things are run. Still, he thinks it works and it's for the best.
"My sense is people are happy with our form of government," he said. "They like the accountability in the mayor. … You have to ask yourself: What's the purpose? Is it to meddle? Is it to play politics with department heads they don't like? Is it to showboat and grandstand? Is it to extract political punishment for whatever reason? There's really no valid reason for it."
There are ways, Buckhorn said, for the council to influence policy and priorities at City Hall. Council members successfully pushed a reluctant Buckhorn to repair and reopen inner-city pools at Williams Park and Cuscaden Park. They resisted his plan to create a Civilian Review Board for police that would have been stocked overwhelmingly by his own appointees, and forced him to compromise, giving them more selections. A majority rejected his $250 million drainage improvement plan last year until he made changes to address their concerns.
But each of those examples is more about the use of influence and compromise.
"That's the way the process should work," Buckhorn said, "without changing the charter."
Contact Richard Danielson at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @Danielson_Times