Audit Oversight: The city of Windsor considers an auditor general

The complainant, Robert Tuomi, said CBC Windsor didn’t know one kind of auditor from another, and that distorted its coverage of the proposal for a new position of auditor general in Windsor. He thought a story was deliberately misleading in order to support the position of the mayor. There was an error in fact but no bias.

COMPLAINT

You had several issues with an article written on the CBC News Windsor website concerning the fulfillment of an election promise by some city councillors to create the position of auditor general for the city. You thought the article, entitled Auditor General needed by Windsor, says Coun. Bill Mara, contained inaccuracies and was misleading. You accused news staff of deliberately omitting details and presenting the facts in a way that appears to support the mayor’s position. The mayor does not want to create an office of auditor general.

Overall, you thought the story lacked depth and context. You said CBC Windsor news staff did not understand the difference between an internal auditor and an auditor general. Because the distinction was not made, you said the story was inaccurate. You pointed out that it stated: “The last city council decided to disband the city’s auditor general office after three failed attempts.” But you said that the city only ever had one auditor general.

And you dispute the claim of a failed attempt to create an auditor general position:

The claim of a “failed” attempt is actually contradicted in the story itself in which it quotes a councillor saying the following, the “auditor general’s office was disbanded primarily because of a personnel issue with the auditor general that was in place at the time,” he said. “It wasn’t a function of the office that was the problem.”

You were also concerned that the reasons given for the three failed attempts did not make it clear enough that an internal auditor and an auditor general have different powers. The story refers to Mike Dunbar as an auditor general and says he left “citing limited access to information.” But you say Mr. Dunbar was not an auditor general. You think it was important for readers to know that an internal auditor does not work independently of staff and council and therefore does not have the same powers as an auditor general.

“…first auditor general, Mike Dunbar, left, citing limited access to information … Angela Berry left, charging the city with harassment. That charge failed to be proved in court.”

This is inaccurate and contradicts a CBC report of February 6, 2012 which included, “rather than create an auditor general’s position in 2004, the city hired a lead auditor, which didn’t work independent of staff and council. Mike Dunbar was the first but he quit in 2007 citing the inability to access information. The position was next filled by acting city auditor Angela Berry.”

Internal auditors, as the report noted, do not “work independent of staff and council” and do not have the powers of an Auditor General. By omitting this critical detail, the CBC is again using unrelated information to try to build credibility for its inaccurate sycophantic position of the city having three failed attempts.

You were also critical of the fact that the story did not challenge the mayor’s position:

The CBC is attempting to legitimatize (sic) the mayor’s position by using words such as “think” and “considers” without full disclosure of the mayor knowing, or ought to have known, given he has been corrected, that the city does not have an Auditor General. It is argued that this is a deceptive practice not normally the domain of objective and professional journalists.

And finally you questioned the attribution of a statement to Councillor Bill Mara. Underneath the photo of him in the story it says “Windsor city councillor Bill Marra wants to add an auditor general to the city’s payroll.” You said the inference of this statement is that adding the position “could result in a tax increase.”

You suggested that the station take a much deeper look at the issue and to provide more context and explanation about financial oversight and how it works.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The managing editor in Windsor, Shawna Kelly, replied to your concerns. She rejected your accusation that the news piece supported the mayor’s position. She pointed out that the article included quotes from both Councillor Bill Mara about why he wants an auditor general position and the mayor, who is opposed to its creation. She explained that by presenting both sides, readers are able to come to their own conclusions:

In our coverage, we spoke to Mr. Marra about why he wants an auditor general, and the mayor who is opposed. The comments from each were presented in such a way that the reader can make their own decision as to whether there is a need for an auditor general.

She agreed that there was a lack of precision in describing previous attempts “to bring an auditing function to the City of Windsor.” She said that it was “the auditing function that failed three times, and not the Office of the Auditor General”:

Our intent was not to suggest that each of the individuals had the same powers, however it is more accurate to use the official titles assigned to each. We have made this correction to the online story and included a prominent notice acknowledging the error.

REVIEW

Ms. Kelly acknowledged that the original version of the story conflated different auditor offices with that of an auditor general, and this was a problem because they do not operate with the same authority. The original story stated:

The last city council decided to disband the city’s auditor general’s office after three failed attempts. The first auditor general, Mike Dunbar, left, citing limited access to information and lack of respect for his work. Angela Berry left, charging the city with harassment. That charge failed to be proved in court.

The revised story amended the sections bolded above and now reads:

The last city council decided to disband the city’s auditor’s office after three failed attempts to create some sort of auditor's position.

Mike Dunbar was a city auditor who left, citing limited access to information and lack of respect for his work.

The original story did not fulfill the CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices requirement to be accurate and clear in its reporting. News staff corrected the error and noted it, as laid out in the policy. While errors are never acceptable, it is not false to say that previous attempts to create some sort of oversight have led to failure for a range of reasons. You read it as supporting the mayor’s position because it points out failed attempts at oversight in the past. That is one interpretation, but by no means the only one. The fact that it has been so contentious and unsuccessful can lead one to an opposite conclusion – that there is a real need to get it right and provide the oversight. Whatever the reasons, and they are stated, it is fair and accurate to say previous attempts to create different kinds of oversight positions were not successful.

The article begins with a quote from a councillor who thinks the city needs an auditor. His reasons are clearly stated and he points out it was not the function that failed, but because of the way the office was constituted:

Windsor needs an auditor general, says one Windsor councillor.

Coun. Bill Marra suggests the position would augment the work now being done by an outside accounting firm.

Reinstating an auditor general was a promise made by several people running for council positions in the last election.

Marra doesn’t want to replace PricewaterhouseCoopers, but says an auditor general would have powers that PWC doesn’t currently have over the city.

“An auditor general, he or she could compel witnesses to come forward through a subpoena process. They would have unfettered access to documents and information, whereas at this time, it doesn’t exist,” Marra said.

There is also another quote from the councillor underneath his picture which says that he wants to “add an auditor general to the city’s payroll.” This caused you concern because you thought this would raise concerns that tax rates would go up to pay for it. With respect, this is reading meaning into a turn of phrase that is pretty neutral.

The article goes on to present the mayor’s position that the he does not consider the position necessary and that he considers the auditing firm the city uses as the “auditor general.” The mayor’s position was presented in this fashion:

Mayor Drew Dilkens said he didn’t think an auditor general was necessary while he was running for election last year.

He considers PricewaterhouseCoopers to be the city’s auditor general.

There is nothing in this phrasing that misleads. The mayor’s position is that there is enough oversight, and whether he literally means that PricewaterhouseCoopers is the city’s auditor general, or that it fulfills that function is something readers can discern on their own. To report what the mayor says and thinks about a matter of public interest is part of presenting different perspectives and positions. Omitting it would be a failure of journalistic responsibility. The language is neutral and appropriate.

CBC Journalistic policy states that in matters of controversy “we ensure that divergent views are reflected respectfully, taking into account their relevance to the debate and how widely held these views are.” The article fulfills that need. There may have been value in providing more background and explanation about the roles of an internal auditor and auditor general, but its absence from this article does not imply bias. I note that Windsor city council recently passed a motion for a report on the cost of hiring an auditor general. No doubt there will be other opportunities to address the issue from other perspectives.

This story did not fulfill policy in its first iteration because it had an error of fact in describing a previous auditor and audit offices. That has been corrected. There is no other violation.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman