Oakland City Hall Credit: Darwin BondGraham

Oakland’s auditor is the city’s financial watchdog. The auditor is elected by Oakland voters and has the freedom to investigate any part of city government. Their main goal is to ensure that Oakland’s departments, programs, and city staff are operating as efficiently as possible. However, the auditor can also identify fraud and abuse and look into whistleblower complaints when someone thinks there’s something wrong happening.

The current city auditor, Courtney Ruby, recently announced what her office is working on for the next year. Oaklanders can expect to see reports about the city’s financial health, the building permits system, and how bond money is being spent on parks and homelessness services, affordable housing, and parks, among other things.

Ruby released her work plan last Thursday. The public doesn’t usually see what the auditor is working on until a report is published. But thanks to Measure X, which Oakland voters passed last November, the auditor now posts her work plan at the end of each August, giving residents a look at what’s coming.

“This audit work plan reflects my office’s ongoing efforts to audit areas that matter most to Oaklanders, while holding government accountable for improving operations, and delivering critical city services more effectively, efficiently, and equitably,” Ruby wrote in the report.

Some of Ruby’s investigations are in response to whistleblower complaints from city leaders, business owners, and residents. For example, last month Ruby released a report describing dysfunction and mismanagement in Chinatown’s business improvement district

The auditor only releases a handful of audits each year, most of which are dry and perfunctory. But some reports contain bombshell revelations that send city leaders scrambling for a response, like the analysis released last year that found Oakland has poured tens of millions of dollars into homelessness services with little accountability or oversight. 

The Oakland auditor is currently working on several audits that she plans to complete in fiscal year 2023-2024:

  • The city of Oakland’s financial condition—this is a biennial performance audit that reviews the city’s fiscal health with an eye toward long-term improvements.
  • The “Development Services Fund”—basically a pot of money from licenses and permit fees, service charges, and fines that are collected for housing and commercial-related planning and construction activities. This audit is trying to find the reasons for high year-end balances in the fund.
  • Building permitting in Oakland—this audit will evaluate the city’s internal controls covering development services.
  • Measure Q, a 2020 ballot initiative that has raised millions of dollars through parcel taxes to pay for park maintenance, homelessness services, and reducing litter. This audit will evaluate whether the measure has improved parks, and whether funds have been spent appropriately.

The auditor is also pursuing an investigation that was requested by Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan earlier this year concerning ESO Ventures, an Oakland-based organization that provides startup loans to entrepreneurs of color. In 2021, the City Council approved giving ESO $8 million in state grants. Kaplan said the city hasn’t received reports on how the money was spent. She also claimed that Oakland mistakenly gave some grant money to ESO that was earmarked for nonprofits. The City Council is allowed to ask the auditor to conduct analyses and reviews.   

The auditor is also required to start several audits over the next year. These audits will examine whether the city properly used tax revenue from voter-approved ballot measures to fund library services and youth services. The auditor will also examine the city’s vacant parcel tax measure. Ballot measures that create or raise taxes typically include language mandating regular audits. The office must also audit the Oakland Police Commission and its investigative arm, the Community Police Review Agency.

Ruby also listed several audits that she wants to prioritize over the next year in response to public demand. These include:

  • An examination of how Oakland investigates city employees accused of misconduct
  • Whether or not Oakland pays its employees equitably
  • 911 emergency response times
  • How good or bad a job the city is doing cleaning up illegal dumping

The scope of an audit may change over the course of the investigation. The auditor has a relatively small budget—about $7 million spread out between 2023-2025—so she and her staff can only pursue a limited number of projects at any given time.

Eli Wolfe reports on City Hall for The Oaklandside. He was previously a senior reporter for San José Spotlight, where he had a beat covering Santa Clara County’s government and transportation. He also worked as an investigative reporter for the Pasadena-based newsroom FairWarning, where he covered labor, consumer protection and transportation issues. He started his journalism career as a freelancer based out of Berkeley. Eli’s stories have appeared in The Atlantic, NBCNews.com, Salon, the San Francisco Chronicle, and elsewhere. Eli graduated from UC Santa Cruz and grew up in San Francisco.