The News-Press (Fort Myers, Florida)

January 28, 2008 Monday
All Edition

Cape official calls for audit of finances

Cape Coral Councilman Pete Brandt is not happy with how the city’s Finance Department is keeping its books. He wants answers and plans to address the issue at today’s council meeting.

Brandt said he does not believe the city has been transparent about the money it collects or spends.

“It seems to me pretty obvious we are not getting full disclosure of things,” Brandt said. “We just need all the information where it can be readily utilized. State law requires that that be done.”

The meeting begins at 5 p.m. in council chambers at City Hall.

City staff has defended its financial reporting practices. In a memo to the City Council, financial services director Mark Mason noted the city has received the Government Finance Officer Association’s Distinguished Budget Presentation Award for 16 consecutive years and the Certificate of Achievement for Excellence in Financial Reporting the past 21 years.

But Brandt is not convinced. Today, he plans to call for the state auditor general to conduct a performance and compliance audit of the Finance Department and ask council to request Michael Kessler and R.L. Townsend undertake audits of city construction contracts.

Kessler and Townsend, in 2006 and 2005 respectively, audited portions of the city’s utility expansion but had many of their findings challenged as not accurate by the city.

City Manager Terry Stewart said council was welcome to conduct further audits, although he was unsure about Brandt’s specific choices in auditors.

“Kessler didn’t do an adequate job in the first place, and secondly, there is bad blood there,” Stewart said.

Mayor Eric Feichthaler said he isn’t opposed to scrutiny, but believes city finances were being kept properly.

Feichthaler said he would not mind if the city’s budget review committee took a look at the department. Another item on Monday’s agenda would give more responsibilities to that committee and rename it the budget advisory committee.

Brandt’s relationship with city staff has been watched since he was elected in November. Before winning office, Brandt spoke at council meetings, criticizing spending.

In his first weeks in office, Brandt issued a series of information requests about finances. One involved discrepancies in documents about city spending in 2005, citing reporting of actual spending which varied from $223 million to $365 million.

Mason responded in a memo the difference in information is “the result of differences in financial reporting and governmental budgeting.” Some of the totals came from the city’s Comprehensive Annual Financial Report and some from the annual operating budget, which Mason said may differ because of differences in ways of reporting.

District 3 Councilman Bill Deile, who sat on the budget review committee before his election to council in November, said he has been frustrated before by a lack of disclosure.

When Mason announced this week the city may start publishing monthly spending reports, Deile noted the committee had been asking for that but was met with resistance.

He said he would support an outside review of how the Finance Department operates.

“We have to be more than transparent,” Deile said. “Who doesn’t favor more disclosure? It’s like Mom and apple pie. Who says no to that? Who says I would like to keep more information secret?”

Brandt has continued to criticize the financial reporting since his election to council. In materials provided for his presentation Monday, he accuses Mason and Stewart of manipulating revenue and reserve reporting.

Stewart said Brandt’s statements were not accurate, but he would respond to the full presentation Monday.

“I live by an abiding concept that the truth is always a positive defense,” Stewart said.

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