It’s not clear when the label of watchdog was first attached to government auditors, but it has become a frequently used term for these hard-working public servants over the decades.
In many jurisdictions around the world, a government auditor’s mission is to ferret out waste, abuse, and corruption in government, and there is generally glowing praise for these watchdogs. However, in far too many instances, when a government auditor has to report that there is inefficiency, ineffectiveness, fraud, waste, or mismanagement, suddenly not everyone is happy to have them around.
Indeed, the love affair with watchdogs at all levels of government, as well as their capable corporate counterparts, has not been without a few spats. Over the years, legitimate and timely work by government audit bodies has been stalled, disrupted, or otherwise maligned by targets of queries, their supporters, or others who fear getting caught up in those investigations or called out by audit reports.
Reactions by government officials vary when the watchdogs bark, including stonewalling investigations and spinning the facts in the media ahead of the release of findings. In some instances, the response is simply to try to muzzle the watchdog.
Over the years, I have not hesitated to stand up for these “guardians of public trust,” and to call out those who retaliate against them. The latest highly publicized case involves the former Baltimore (Maryland USA) School Board Chief Auditor. A recent article on the Internal Audit 360 website disclosed:
“What had typically been a routine vote to renew the contract of Baltimore School Board Chief Auditor Andrea Barr was anything but typical this time around. The school board effectively fired Barr, who had been the chief auditor for 36 years, when several members simply abstained from voting.
In a meeting last month, only six of the 12 members voted to retain her while the others abstained or recused themselves. It took seven votes to renew her contract. There was no public discussion by the school board before it took the vote and no statement on the reasoning for not renewing Barr’s contract.“
Anytime a CAE’s employment in the government is terminated, my antenna goes up. I accept that in some instances the terminations are warranted for ineffective performance or malfeasance. However, too often politically motivated retaliation is the root cause, and that doesn’t serve the public well at all. I do not know Ms. Barr, and I willingly admit that I do not have all the facts. But additional details reported by Internal Audit 360 and media outlets paint an all too familiar scenario in which retribution seems to be a factor:
“…critics of the move site actions by Barr that put the board in an unflattering light for her ouster. In 2019, the auditor complained about a hostile work environment created by two board members. In 2020, her office released an internal audit which showed school board members misspent taxpayer money and overspent its budget.
The most recent vote ousting her could be seen as a parting shot from a school board, since nearly all members are finishing their final terms and leaving the board. A consultant has described their operation as ‘dysfunctional.‘”
As noted above, I have weighed in on countless instances of retribution against government auditors by politicians over the years. In most cases, they willfully stand up and vote to oust the internal auditor. What makes the Baltimore School Board case even sadder is that many of the school board members didn’t even display the courage to vote against Ms. Barr. Instead, they abstained – apparently realizing she would be ousted without adequate votes to renew her contract. In fact, this is the only case I can recall where a government auditor was ousted by an elected body without a single vote cast to do so.
Accountability is vital to our system of government. If there was a basis for not renewing the Chief Auditor, then it should have been disclosed. I call on the incoming members of the Baltimore School Board to review the facts of this case and cast a proper vote on retention of the Chief Auditor. If that doesn’t happen, then Baltimore is yet another American City where oversight has gone to die.