During Tuesday’s city council meeting, Columbus Mayor Keith Gaskin planned for the city council and the public to hear presentations from a pair of forensic auditing firms, take two weeks to digest the information and then ask the city council to approve proceeding with the audit at their next meeting on Oct. 19.
Gaskin has made no secret of his desire for a forensic audit, a move he believes will build public credibility after the Milton Rawle embezzlement debacle. While approximately $290,000 in embezzled funds were identified by State Auditor Shad White in 2020, White suggested there may be more. Speaking to Columbus Rotary this summer, White suggested a forensic audit might determine what happened to the rest of the money.
On social media and in the newspaper, Gaskin made his argument for the forensic audit.
Where the mayor apparently failed to make that argument was among the council, which delivered a resounding no to the forensic audit idea. Despite a plea from the mayor reminding the council that Tuesday’s meeting was intended to gather information rather than render a verdict, Ward 2 Councilman Joseph Mickens made a motion to scrap plans for a forensic audit and accept no private donations to fund a forensic audit. His motion passed by a 4-2 margin. We note that neither councilman who voted no — Ward 3’s Rusty Greene or Ward 6’s Jacqueline DiCicco — made any comment nor did they offer a substitute motion to table the vote until Oct. 19, as the mayor had suggested.
Mickens argued that it was not wise for the city to spend anywhere from $23,000 to $275,000 on what is, in essence, a speculative exercise. Neither firm could guarantee any money would be recovered.
The disparity between the estimated cost of the audit by the two firms suggests that the firms weren’t entirely sure of the scope of audit the city was asking for, something that should have been stated clearly as the firms put together their estimates.
Mickens argued the city’s limited funds should be used for tangible goals, citing needs in the city’s police, fire and public works departments.
Debate on how to spend taxpayer money is a basic part of any government and differences of opinion should not be surprising.
Taken by itself, that the mayor and council ultimately disagree is not unusual, either. That happens everywhere and not infrequently.
What transpired Tuesday may be indicative of a larger issue, one that may re-emerge if no changes are made.
It seems clear to us that the mayor’s primary focus on the forensic audit was to make his case in the court of public opinion rather than among the council members. Mickens’ reference Tuesday night to comments made to The Dispatch by the mayor seems to indicate that some council members feel they are being left out of the discussions.
The 4-2 vote against the forensic audit appears to support that view.
It’s important to note that it is the council that sets policy. Barring a 3-3 tie, the mayor doesn’t get a vote. The mayor can and should have an idea of what policy should be, but ultimately the mayor’s job is to build consensus.
No matter your view on the forensic audit, it’s clear the mayor failed to build that consensus. When the mayor promotes a policy on social media or in the newspaper, there should be some reason to expect that he has the council’s support.
Charging forward without some indication of support from council will continue to set the mayor up for repeats of last night.
The better approach, we believe, is to have open and candid discussions with council members before taking the case to the public. That does not appear to have happened here.
While open meeting laws obviously have to be observed, certainly no harm can come from discussions with council members and keeping them informed.
Ultimately, such conversations may also prevent the mayor from promising more than he can deliver.
There’s no harm in that, either.
The Dispatch Editorial Board is made up of publisher Peter Imes, columnist Slim Smith, managing editor Zack Plair and senior newsroom staff.