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City Auditor Weighs in on Schools, Mayor

It's hardly as splashy as hot-blooded politicians posturing for cameras, but the City Auditor Umesh Dalal will ultimately determine who's right and who's not in the fight between Mayor L. Douglas Wilder and the city school system.

Dalal reports to City Council, not the mayor or the School Board. And the integrity of the truly independent auditor is vitally important, Dalal says.

"I'm nobody's guy," Dalal says. "I'm here to ensure accountability, and that's what I'm going to do. I will never — and underscore never — compromise the integrity of the audit process."

Neither his first audit nor this second planned audit of the school system has included a review of facilities. Wilder has insisted that the School Board close more than a dozen schools, calling their existence wasteful. Their closure and the construction of new facilities was a central — now nixed — part of the mayor's City of the Future plan.

In fact, such an audit — or a report of sufficient detail that meets Dalal's satisfaction — has already been done. In October 2002, the schools paid more than $600,000 for an outside firm to complete a "facilities master plan" that examined in-depth more than 60 buildings owned by the school system. The report gave recommendations on which ones were worth keeping, improving or closing.

That report could be dusted off at far less expense than arranging an outside audit, Dalal says. The outside audit commissioned by the mayor includes auditing facilities, but Dalal says the 2002 audit could be used more inexpensively.

"I will doubt that the mayor will need the outside audit when we are done with our audit," he says.

But Wilder may need to pay the outside auditor anyway. A signed contract between that Washington, D.C.-based auditor and the city for $224,000 has no specific rip cord should Wilder choose to call things off.

"Generally there would be a [financial obligation]," Wilder spokesman Linwood Norman says, "but in this case we don't know the specifics." An audit by the same firm of the city assessor's office could also become moot, Norman says, if that office agrees to a public presentation by the assessor explaining his methods.

As for the audit of the assessor's office, Norman says, Acting Chief Administrative Officer Harry Black has asked for that to "slow down."

Though clearly put on the spot by the question, Dalal assesses the helpfulness of each of the players in the audit debate:

The School Board? Initially reluctant, he says, it's opened up since the first audit. He has hope.

City Council? Also helpful to the debate, he says.

The mayor? Dalal shifts in his chair before replying. "I don't know. I think he means to [help]," he says. "He probably means well." S

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