D.C. Auditor Kathy Patterson
D.C. Auditor Kathy Patterson issued a new report highlighting the Council's tendency to ignore her recommendations. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

A new report from D.C. Auditor Kathy Patterson titled “Seventy-One Percent of Auditor Recommendations In Place or In Progress” might seem, at first glance, to be good bed-time reading for an insomniac.

But between the lines you’ll see a shot across the bow delivered for the D.C. Council, even if it is written in the formal legalese of a government bookkeeper.

Despite the report’s rosy title, Patterson’s office argues in the document that lawmakers are often ignoring the auditor’s frequent recommendations about how to improve District agencies and programs. Of the 96 improvements the office suggested in reports issued between 2018 and 2020, the auditors found that the Council hasn’t acted on 17 of them—that’s the most, by far, of any other government agency. The mayor’s office and Department of Energy and the Environment are tied for second on the auditor’s naughty list, at nine apiece.

The report, released Feb. 3, is careful not to scold the Council directly for its intransigence, highlighting “the common goal we share to improve the effectiveness, efficiency, and accountability of the District government.” A former Ward 3 councilmember herself, Patterson has not lost the politician’s touch.

And broadly speaking, Patterson has a good reputation around the Wilson Building. Her auditors’ work exposing problems with the often politically tinged process of handing out Housing Production Trust Fund money has been a special focus for lawmakers, providing plenty of ammunition for councilmembers looking to criticize Mayor Muriel Bowser’s administration.

But the underlying message from Patterson is clear, and it’s not an especially kind one for the Council. The auditor’s whole purpose is to help lawmakers conduct oversight and find holes in legislation they might’ve missed—what good is that work if no one listens?

In the Council’s defense, not all of Patterson’s recommendations are simple fixes. Take, for instance, her 2019 call for the District to build a new jail, citing the dangerous conditions at the current facility. Considering the yearslong debate over the issue and the lack of any easy solution, it’s perhaps a bit unfair to expect officials to resolve the matter just because the auditor said so (though Bowser officials did tell Patterson’s office to expect some capital funding for the project to be included in the upcoming 2023 budget proposal).

The auditor’s other complaints require a bit less heavy lifting, if the Council cared to listen.

For one, she wants lawmakers to come up with a new system for tracking legal settlements and judgements against District agencies. Right now, the Council regularly asks agencies to report the results of legal cases during oversight proceedings, but the results aren’t collected in a central location. Without that info, Patterson’s office argues, lawmakers are missing a key resource to understand if, say, an agency is regularly engaged in wage disputes with employees or seeing a high number of sexual harassment claims.

The Council told the auditor that the Office of Risk Management (which handles insurance matters) is the better entity for the job. But even then, Patterson suggested that lawmakers could at least make some changes around the margins to make improvements—the various Council committees all ask different questions with different wording about legal settlements right now. Though it is no secret that some councilmembers care much more than others about their oversight duties, the least they could do is ask the same questions uniformly, Patterson argues.

Then there’s the auditor’s complaints about the pots of money set aside by the Council that are supposed to fund specific programs, knows as “special purpose revenue funds.” Patterson believes lawmakers too often create these fund categories and then fail to monitor them closely, leading to opaque bookkeeping practices that make the already impenetrable budget process even less transparent.

The Council told the auditor that it’s reviewing these funds, but her report makes it clear she doesn’t take those efforts very seriously. “Nothing on the public record indicated any recent efforts to reduce or eliminate” the funds, the auditors wrote, noting that lawmakers continue to play shell games with these public dollars in each successive budget process.

Of course, the Council has yet to listen to Patterson on these matters, despite her previous reports urging action. Will this time be any different?