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Langley’s troubles prompt call for independent audit

The call for an audit of Langley city government is growing in the wake of controversies over the city’s spending practices.

Hal Seligson, a Langley resident and former chairman of the city’s Planning Advisory Board, is leading the charge for an outside, independent review of the city.

“There’s a degree of uncertainty among a lot of people in Langley ... as to whether or not our tax dollars are being spent appropriately and all the rules are being followed regarding a number of aspects,” Seligson said. “An audit by an outside, official body would bring answers.”

A tumultuous tide has swamped the Village by the Sea since early July, when the inner turmoil at city hall over spending issues became public after Langley officials learned the city’s director of finance asked the county prosecutor to investigate “improper actions” by Mayor Paul Samuelson.

Concerns about the mayor getting full-time pay while in California on vacation were followed by reports of the city overspending its budget for attorney fees and the repairs at the Second Street fire hall. And, most recently, the city has come under scrutiny for the costs of its contract with Langley’s building official in recent years.

The controversy has grown to the point where some have called for the council and mayor to resign. Others have talked about the possibility of starting a recall petition.

Seligson, a retired administrator of a research and teaching hospital in New York affiliated with Columbia University Medical School, said an audit may help clear away the cloud of controversy.

If the audit comes back clean, Seligson said Langley officials would be vindicated.

“And if not, then people would have a point from which to begin to take other steps,” he said.

Seligson, however, cautioned others against making accusations or taking action against elected or appointed officials in the absence of an outside review. It’s too soon, he said, for talk about recalls for council members or the mayor.

“I think absent more concrete information, that may be premature,” he said.

Seligson favors an audit that would be able to make recommendations, such as the heft that a review by the state auditor’s office would bring.

That’s because audits, and portions of audits, conducted by private review entities can be kept confidential.

Langley currently is audited by the state every two years, and the next isn’t scheduled until 2011.

In late July, as the council took steps to change the ordinance that made Samuelson eligible for vacation pay, the mayor and council rejected the idea of an annual audit, citing the cost.

But Seligson said such a review could be worth the money it costs the city.

“The current circumstances have led to an unacceptable degree of lack of trust in local government. You’re not going to have successful government, especially in a time that we’re in now, nationally, if people don’t have confidence,” he said.

“The purchase of peace of mind is probably worth the cost,” he said.

Seligson said people he’s talked with have responded favorably to the suggestion of an audit, and Councilman Russell Sparkman endorsed the idea on a new Web site the city recently launched that will offer details behind the decisions made by the council and mayor.

The new site — www.langleyelecteds.org — will be an ongoing, electronic newsletter, said Councilman Robert Gilman, who set up the Web site.

“What we’re hearing from people who live here in Langley is that they want to be able to hear from their elected officials in a straightforward way,” Gilman said.

The Web site features blogs by each council member and the mayor. But unlike other blogs on the Internet, readers won’t be able to add their comments to the issues raised by Langley’s council and mayor.

That’s by design, Gilman said.

“The city is already set up with a lot of ways to receive input. We want people to continue to use the existing channels,” he said.

Gilman said he’s thought about the practicality of an earlier audit, and said city officials are busy putting together next year’s budget.

“We would have trouble meeting our required state-law-mandated timing to get our budget out if we were to do the audit between now and the end of the year,” Gilman said.

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