By Raiza Giorgi

The Solvang City Council has approved a $52,000 six-month contract for a consultant to examine city operations and make suggestions for changes.

The new Special City Auditor, Thomas Widroe, was given a long list of specific items including a financial audit of the city, although he is not a financial auditor.

The council approved his contract during a special meeting July 23 on a 4 – 1 vote with Councilwoman Karen Waite dissenting.

“I have been looking forward to this for quite some time. I have been looking at our city government for the last three years in preparation for running for office, and trying to figure out what is it that we do, and can we do it better with fewer resources. The resources are finite and we have growing volume of costs related to capital improvement projects. When was the last time we had an audit of the entire city from top to bottom?” said Councilmember Chris Djernaes. 

The council said it is exercising Article VII of Solvang’s City Charter, which provides for the City Council “from time to time” to review the city’s overall structural performance and best practices to deliver optimal results for the community.

The audit and investigations intend to determine the accuracy of information provided to the City Council and information concerning the performance of city departments, offices, or agencies as requested by the council, according to the scope of work listed in the council’s agenda packet. 

Widroe will have access to and authority to examine any and all documents, records, bank accounts, money and other property of any city department, office or agency with the exception of the office of any elected official. 

Widroe, now a Buellton resident, described his background at the meeting, stating he first came to Solvang when he worked for the American Heart Association when it was putting on an event with Bo Derek.

He has a bachelor’s and master’s degree in American and European history and has worked for local officials Willy Chamberlin, Brooks Firestone and former Congressman Elton Gallegly. 

“I have also served as government watchdog, holding elected officials accountable for their decisions,” Widroe said. 

He said his group, Santa Barbara City Watch, was instrumental in getting the Santa Barbara City Council to outsource maintenance of its municipal golf course, which created a savings of half a million dollars per year. 

“Since that decision, the golf course is thriving under private management,” Widroe said. 

He said there is considerable work to be accomplished for Solvang, in planning, marketing, communications, infrastructure, wastewater management, and the need for more tax revenue to support infrastructure. 

“With 25 years in the public, private and nonprofit sector of our economy, I believe I can effectively serve the community,” Widroe added. 

During public comment, the speakers were about evenly divided between support and opposition to the special city auditor. 

“The community is tired of the long time “good old boys” council, and you were voted in to make a change,” said business owner Kenny “Esko” Lama. … “Our community elected all of you, and there is a silent majority outside who support you. We support the appointment of the new city auditor. Don’t be afraid, just do it.”

Another resident questioned the action to hire Widroe because it was done in a special closed session, and there was no advertising for applicants for the position. 

“To my knowledge consultants aren’t hired in closed session. Normally a statement of work is prepared by the city, incorporated into an RFP (request for proposals) so consulting firms can respond with proposals. Subsequent to evaluations of proposals, the contract is awarded to the most qualified firm based on the combination of capability and cost, known as ‘Best Value Award’,” said Gay Infanti. 

This ensures a public vetting of qualifications and experience along with costs, Infanti said. 

“I wonder how the council determined how he has the necessary qualifications and experience to the work scope. Seems to me this was all done without giving the city manager and staff a chance to evaluate and recommend improvements and changes to the city’s processes. Whether the city council agrees or not, this city auditor will be usurping the city manager’s responsibilities and role,” Infanti said. 

Resident Hazel Mortensen said she agreed with the council’s decision for the auditor because she thinks the city should address wasteful spending and demand be more accountability from publicly funded tourism groups. 

 “What makes him (Widroe) so highly qualified over other vetted candidates, and what were Mr. Widroe’s previous results on performance projects for other cities that made you believe he was right for the position?” asked Kim Jensen. “Is this the same Tim Widroe whose top campaign pledge in 2014 was ‘Defund the Buellton Visitor’s Bureau because there was no need to market tourism in Buellton’?. The Buellton constituents gave their answer by not electing him.”

During council discussion, Councilmember Daniel Johnson said he believes it is a good thing to have Widroe look at city issues. 

Councilmember Robert Clarke said City Manager David Gassaway has his hands full and he is doing a great job. The auditor, he added, has a fresh set of eyes and such a hiring is a common practice in government and private business. 

“I’m a fiscal conservative but I think the city needs a fresh set of eyes,” Clarke said. 

Waite said having Widroe would be helpful to look at various departments and increasing efficiency, but she wasn’t in favor of increasing the amount of the contract. 

Mayor Ryan Toussaint said he had an experience early in the recent water rate study, where he believes millions of dollars in unjustified expenses were made. 

“When I asked for financial information, I got a call from another council member, all finance documents were marked for destruction because of a free shred day. Then told the water rate study came to an end, consultants disappeared and we no longer needed water rate increases because of water meters. The city does need a financial audit and give direction to the city auditor in bringing in a comprehensive financial audit of the entire city,” Toussaint said. 

An ad hoc committee of Djernaes and Clarke was named to look at marketing and destination services with the city auditor. 

To watch the entire special meeting visit the city’s YouTube page, Solvang City TV.