Sacramento City Hall is trumpeting a new way to weed out waste, fraud and abuse a whistle-blower hotline.
Except the 24-hour "hotline" won't actually exist for a month or so, almost certainly after Election Day. And when it does go live, it'll be a pale imitation of the real thing.
You don't have to be a complete cynic to see this as at least partly a ploy to shore up support for the city's proposed half-cent sales tax increase, Measure U, on the Nov. 6 ballot.
The sequence of events is curious.
After costly misdeeds in the community development and utilities departments and three years after state law allowed local whistle-blower hotlines, the City Council agreed in March to establish one.
But it delayed until budget talks a decision on how much to spend.
City Auditor Jorge Oseguera said it would cost about $15,000 a year for a bare-bones hotline using existing staff, but warned that would slow investigations and other audits. It would cost about $220,000 a year for a full-fledged version with a new staffer to investigate tips.
He made it plain which one would be better for taxpayers. In a report to the council, he said that a survey of city employees had found that 56 percent had concerns about waste, fraud or abuse, but that a majority said they didn't report the problem, mostly out of fear of retaliation. Oseguera noted that even if only a few city employees are committing fraud, it could cost the city millions if they go undetected. He cited a widely used estimate that a typical organization loses 5 percent of its annual revenue to fraud. That would be more than $30 million a year for the city.
When the council approved the budget in June, however, it didn't set aside money in the auditor's office for a hotline.
After some opponents of Measure U started squawking, City Manager John Shirey told The Bee's editorial board in mid-September that the auditor had been advised that $17,000 was available for the whistle-blower program. In follow-up emails Friday, Shirey said that commitment was made in early June, and he insisted that the hotline has nothing to do with the sales tax campaign.
As many voters received their ballots in the mail this week, the city announced Thursday it had "launched" the hotline. While it will be next month before the city hires a private firm to run the hotline, tipsters can call the auditor's office. In the city news release, council members Steve Cohn and Kevin McCarty, who are leading the charge for the sales tax measure, promoted the hotline as a big step toward more accountability on spending.
If their intent is to reassure skeptical voters, their gambit may fall flat, even backfire.
Voters might remember instead that a majority of the council spent $205,000 to place on the ballot a half-baked measure for an elected charter review commission. That sum, plus the $17,000 allocated, would have been enough for a robust whistle-blower hotline.
Which would have been a wiser use of tax dollars? The answer is obvious.