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State shares results of early Langley audit

LANGLEY — City hall needs to do a better job of monitoring contractors, spending hotel-motel taxes, documenting public meetings and reviewing and approving ordinances, officials from the State Auditor’s Office told Langley’s leaders this week.

The city also failed to follow its policy on whistleblower complaints, state officials said, because the investigation over last year’s internal complaint on employee misconduct stretched far past the 30-day deadline for whistleblower investigations adopted by the city.

Representatives of the State Auditor’s Office visited Langley on Tuesday to lay out what the state’s audit of the city had discovered. The audit — launched earlier than expected after residents flooded the state’s fraud hotline with complaints — focused on the work of city government from January 2009 through October 2010.

The audit reviewed many of the controversial issues that have consumed city hall during the past eight months, including the mayor’s salary and vacation pay and the high costs charged to the city by Langley’s building official.

But in relatively good news for the city, the results of the review will not lead to a set of “findings” that will be included in the published audit report, expected to be released in two weeks or so.

Instead, state auditors gave Langley a lesser warning — a four-page “management letter” with recommendations for improvements at city hall.

Assistant State Auditor Spencer Bright said the city needs to improve its monitoring of contracts, given what the state had found in its review of billings submitted by Langley’s building official.

The auditor examined three out of 15 monthly payments to Bob Snyder, the city’s building official, made between January 2009 and March 2010.

“On 12 occasions, the contractor billed the city for work on permit numbers that did not exist, and on four occasions the contractor billed the city for work related to permits that had not yet been issued. The bills had come in before the permits were issued,” Bright said.

The auditor also noted that the city paid Snyder to attend two conferences, although his contract did not include conference fees as an allowable expense.

The permit charges and conference fees in question totaled $2,580.

The review also found the city did not adequately monitor Snyder when he calculated permit fees that were charged to customers.

“We noted that three of the six permit files we received did not have adequate documentation to support how the city determined the value of the construction project and how the fees were calculated,” the management letter states.

City officials said Snyder’s conference fees had been preapproved by the mayor, and that they did check to make sure all of the work billed by Snyder actually happened.

“We were assured that all the work was done,” said City Treasurer Debbie Mahler. “Some of the work didn’t correspond to permit numbers, because it was administrative and was not tied to a certain permit.”

Mahler also noted that Snyder was no longer a contractor for the city, but had been taken off contract and made a city employee last year.

“This is kind of a moot point now,” she said.

Snyder was the subject of the city’s first-ever whistleblower complaint, which was filed by a Mary Jo McArdle, Langley’s former records clerk, in November 2009.

At the time, McArdle raised alarm over “unmonitored, unquestioned, mismanaged and unnecessary expenditures.” She also complained that the city should not be paying for Snyder’s professional fees, and raised repeated concerns about missing records and improperly calculated fees.

The city dismissed the whistleblower complaint after an internal investigation, but the review led to the end of Snyder’s contract after officials learned Snyder had been paid $93,420 in 2008 and earned more than $259,000 over the span of three years at a time when development activity had dropped off significantly in Langley.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Bright noted the city policy for completing whistleblower investigations within 30 days.

“The city did not officially respond or complete the investigation until 174 days after the initial concern,” Bright said.

Mahler, however, said the whistleblower complaint raised 57 separate points.

“There was quite an investigation process that went on, and a lot of research done, and we did continue to write to this employee and keep her informed of the investigation and its outcome, but it took a considerable amount of time,” she said.

Mahler said the city would change the 30-day deadline in its policy.

“We do plan to review our policy and change the language so it’s not so restrictive,” she said.

State officials also noted other problem areas. Bright said the city failed to take minutes at 39 workshop meetings in 2009 and 2010, and minutes were also not taken during a 2009 council retreat.

Mahler said the city did keep records of every workshop, but acknowledged that formal minutes were not recorded.

Langley was also warned that it had violated state law by using hotel-motel taxes on expenditures that were not related to tourism. The state auditor said $17,250 was spent to maintain trees and parks in 2009 and 2010.

Starting with the 2011 budget, the city no longer spends hotel-motel taxes on tree trimming and park maintenance.

State officials also said the city council had gone beyond its statutory authority when it made Mayor Paul Samuelson a city employee.

In late 2008, the council raised the mayor’s pay to $51,513, but controversy erupted over the mayor’s salary and benefits package after Mahler raised concerns that the mayor was receiving full-time pay while on out-of-state vacations.

The state auditor told Langley officials that the council could not make the mayor an employee because he was an elected official, and also noted that the city had since adopted a revised ordinance that fixed the problem.

Still, the auditor said the city needed to improve its process for reviewing and approving ordinances.

Councilman Hal Seligson, who led the call for an early audit before his recent appointment to the council, later said he hoped the audit will resolve the concerns that were brought up by citizens last year.

“I’m hoping that most people will be satisfied with the results by an outside, official body,” Seligson said.

He noted the audit had set out recommendations for improved policies and procedures, and he said he would propose the formation of an ad hoc council committee at the next council meeting that would devote itself to administration and finance issues.

“Clearly, we want to be able to have the best controls over the taxpayers’ funds,” he said.

He said the committee would include members of the public with expertise or experience in financial matters and personnel administration, and said all committee meetings would be open to the public.

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