The Oakland city auditor is the elected financial watchdog of city government, tasked with scrutinizing department budgets and working to protect taxpayer money from fraud, waste, and mismanagement. It’s a critical position now in Oakland, with the current auditor, Courtney Ruby, having decided to give up the office to run for mayor.
In the race to replace her, voters have a choice between two candidates who don’t share a lot of common ground. Len Raphael, a political activist and former City Council candidate, is facing off against Brenda Roberts, a newcomer to Oakland politics and certified internal auditor who has done audits for the federal government and the City and County of San Francisco. Both candidates are certified public accountants.
In addition to garnering attention for his unsuccessful council bid in 2012, Raphael, who has his own accounting firm, was also in the news that year for his role as treasurer for a committee working to recall Mayor Jean Quan. He has been outspoken about Oakland government for years and frequently comments on news articles and submits op-eds. He said he decided to run after friends encouraged him — in response to a Facebook post he wrote, in which he commented on the need for Oakland to have an auditor who is truly independent from City Hall.
“I’m an Oakland policy wonk,” said Raphael. “Win or lose, part of what I’m trying to do is inform and educate the residents as to what goes on at City Hall.”
Roberts, who has lived in Oakland for 25 years, is an internal auditor and certified fraud examiner who has more than twenty years of professional auditing experience, including completing audits for Fortune 500 companies, the US Office of Inspector General, and the US Department of Labor.
“It’s a very complex city and we need a professional to come in and be our watchdog,” Roberts said. “I am devoted to Oakland …. And I’d like to have an opportunity to give back.”
The differences between the two candidates largely stem from how they would approach the job. Raphael said that, based on his many years scrutinizing Oakland government, he knows what his auditing priorities would be on Day One. He emphasized that the city auditor is a department head who guides the direction of the office and hires an assistant auditor to do the actual audit work.
“It’s critical that the city auditor have the backbone to select the problematic targets,” Raphael said. He said he would be interested in auditing the city’s Oakland Coliseum contracts, its contract with Comcast, the Oakland Public Works Agency’s use of revenue from a specific sewer tax, overtime pay and disability claims within the Oakland Police Department, and the city’s spending on an outside firm that evaluated Measure Y, an Oakland tax that funds anti-violence efforts.
“No one is evaluating the evaluator,” he said of the Measure Y reviews. “I have read those evaluations. They are not rigorous.” He said he also would have scrutinized the city’s garbage franchise proposals and scheduled rate increases (which the council recently approved after months of debate and controversy).
Raphael further contended that he would be more proactive than past auditors by analyzing the finances of critical proposals in advance of city council votes. “You’re supposed to advise the city council before it makes major decisions. That is a role that city auditors in the past years have not performed.”
Roberts said that, if elected, she would conduct a general review of city finances and budgets to help her determine her auditing priorities moving forward — rather than immediately targeting specific contracts and departments. Her initial “risk assessment,” she said, would allow her to identify critical areas and chronic problems where audits could, given the office’s limited resources, have the most impact.
“I come in with an unbiased background. I don’t have any axes to grind,” she said. “I don’t have any particular venue I want to see changed or rectified.”
This difference in philosophy also extends to the two candidates’ divergent perspectives on how the auditor should interact with City Hall.
“You have to understand that an auditor is not supposed to be Mr. Nice Guy. He’s supposed to be a little bit of a son of a bitch,” Raphael said, adding that if he is doing his job right, after four years, city officials and other powerful stakeholders in Oakland will “sharpen their knives and try to get me out of there.” He criticized Roberts for having received endorsements from municipal unions that have contracts she would be auditing.
Roberts, however, noted that the city auditor is not involved in labor negotiations and pointed out that she has no endorsements from continuing city councilmembers, which would allow her to maintain independence from the council. Raphael has endorsements from Councilmembers Noel Gallo and Larry Reid. (Roberts has the endorsement of outgoing Oakland City Council President Patricia Kernighan).
More broadly, while Roberts emphasized the importance of the auditor being objective and independent, she said her goal would be to establish professional and positive relationships with city officials. “In other organizations where I have worked, I have worked very hard to gain and retain and develop those relationships. Having those great relationships is an integral part to finding a solution to a problem.”
Both candidates were formerly registered as Republicans. Raphael changed his registration from being a Republican to a Democrat in 2011 and Roberts changed her party affiliation to Democrat in June of this year, on the same day that she filed her candidate intention statement.