As Oakland's independently elected auditor, it's Roland Smith's job to piss people off. Any auditor worth his abacus will inevitably uncover waste and mismanagement while doing his job. But these days Smith is even pissing off some of his own staff, particularly deputy auditor George Briggs. Smith fired him earlier this month and now Briggs is dishing on his old boss, saying the crotchety auditor falls asleep in staff meetings, is more interested in publicity than saving the city money, pursues audits out of political spite, and has an explosive temper.
Briggs says he got a taste of that temper the day Smith fired him. Here's how Briggs tells the story: Smith ordered him out of the office after he threatened to file a grievance against his boss for refusing to reimburse $400 in job-related travel expenses. At that point, Briggs says, he went to get his personal effects from his desk, but when he turned to leave, he found Smith blocking his way and loudly accusing him of stealing. Briggs insisted he had no city property on him and headed to the elevator, but Smith allegedly followed, yelling and calling him a thief. It didn't stop there: The boss got onto the elevator and berated him for the four-flight ride. Down in the lobby, Briggs says, Smith told the security guard to arrest him, which the guard said he couldn't do. The auditor even followed him outside for a bit, yelling all the while. "He likes to yell," Smith's ex-deputy observes.
Briggs has since filed a formal grievance to get his old job back, and is considering filing a lawsuit alleging wrongful termination. Reached at his office, Smith refused to comment on Briggs' termination or his version of events, saying it was a confidential personnel matter. It should be noted, though, that as a relatively new employee, Briggs still had probationary status and thus lacked the same job protections as a permanent city staffer.
Briggs claims that during his fourteen months working for Smith he began to feel more like a political hit man than an auditor. For instance, in an October 18 e-mail to city administrator Deborah Edgerly, union reps, and members of the media, Briggs criticized an audit he'd worked on that examined the use of credit cards by city execs for a three-month period ending June 28, 2004. He said one of Smith's goals for the audit, which was released earlier this month, was to find dirt on the city council's two cardholders in retaliation for cutting his staff and reducing his salary via a city-sponsored ballot measure. He adds that Smith directed him to subpoena these two council members -- he identifies them in an interview as Jane Brunner and Danny Wan -- and also have them answer a lengthy legal questionnaire.
Judging from the flaccid audit report that resulted earlier this month, Smith found little on his supposed enemies. In fact, the report cited no embarrassing or improper expenses charged to the city by any of its 32 cardholders -- no booze, no porn ordered at hotels, no fancy meals at Chez Panisse. Nonetheless, it concluded that cardholders had "abused" their privileges, and the auditor recommended canceling most of the cards and suspending the program.
Smith told Feeder that although he found no improper expenditures, the plastic-toters had abused the system by not turning in supporting receipts or getting proper authorization for purchases. Smith said he ordered the audit because the city "is on the hook" for a lot of money from the cards, which have a cumulative $376,500 credit limit.
Briggs also contends that Smith cares more about getting re-elected next year and making headlines than making the city run better. He claims that at one staff meeting Smith proclaimed, "I'm looking for a news conference where someone's taken away in handcuffs."
Clearly, Feeders, the accusations of a disgruntled ex-employee need to be viewed with some skepticism. But there is some corroboration for Briggs' story. Another employee confirmed that the auditor falls asleep during staff meetings (Smith denies it) and that there's widespread discontent in the office.
Nilka Julio, an organizer for the Professional & Technical Engineers, Local 21, the union that represents Smith's people, says there's been a lot of turnover in the auditor's office through the years -- usually a sign of an unhappy workplace. "They're not leaving because they want to," she argues. "They're leaving because they're forced to, because of the intolerable conditions."
Party Poop? Perchance Not. Pigeon Poop? Preposterous!
It appears that ex-Berkeley City Councilwoman Maudelle Shirek will give her blessing to a December event in her honor. As recently as last week, her longtime aide Mike Berkowitz acknowledged, it was unclear whether she would go along with the shindig, the brainchild of her rival and council successor Max Anderson.
Not all Maudellistas are thrilled about the fiesta. Jackie DeBose, Shirek's friend and former appointee to the Police Review Commission, still sounds suspicious about Anderson's motives for helping organize the event -- she suspects he is seeking some personal glory. After all, Anderson previously enlisted the backing of some of Shirek's erstwhile progressive supporters to help unseat her last year. "It's ironic," DeBose grouses, "that someone who said she was too incompetent to hold a position on the city council now wants to honor her as the all-time political icon of Berkeley." DeBose says Shirek has decided to play along because educational scholarships will be offered in her name and she feels strongly about the importance of education.
Anderson's effort to honor Shirek got some publicity recently after Congressional Republicans stymied an effort to name a Berkeley post office after her. His committee is now recommending that the city name a building, such as old City Hall, after Shirek, and commission a mural in her honor.
Sour grapes aren't the only reason people have wondered what role Shirek would play in the festivities. The 94-year-old has been unwell, having suffered a stroke a few months ago. The Chronicle reported that she has Alzheimer's, although DeBose disputes that. She meets and talks to Shirek regularly, and insists her friend is still lucid. One conversation involved a rumor that Anderson's committee was debating making a Shirek statue, an idea Ms. Shirek reportedly didn't care for. "She told me she didn't want a statue because it would be something that the pigeons would shit on," DeBose recalls. Yep, that sounds like Maudelle all right.
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