City Auditor Courtney Ruby announced last week that she is taking a job with the San Diego Association of Governments starting in October. The new gig will be similar to her job in Oakland but on a larger scale. Ruby will evaluate how San Diego County’s 19 local governments use their time and money, and investigate whistleblower complaints about fraud and abuse.
Ruby is on her fourth term as Oakland city auditor. She served from 2007 to 2015, and returned to office in 2019. The auditor is an elected position.
Ruby said her first years in office were tough: she was new to politics, Oakland had no experience with professional performance audits, and some local stakeholders bristled at the thought of being scrutinized.
“The difficulty was people wanted to destroy my credibility, and that was something that I certainly didn’t anticipate,” Ruby said. “I really had to go toe-to-toe with leaders that I was auditing.”
Ruby’s first performance audit was of the city’s payroll system. Her team found that millions of dollars in city funds had been improperly spent on vacation leave, bonuses, and car allowances. She said it was her intent to not only conduct audits but foster an ethical culture in city departments that was lacking at the time. In 2013, her office determined that councilmembers in Districts 6 and 7 had violated a section of the city charter—Oakland’s constitution—that prohibits elected officials from giving orders to city staff.
Oakland’s auditor is an elected position, which is meant to shield the position from political influence. However, the auditor has sometimes been accused of carrying out investigations for political reasons.
Ruby is adamant that the office, under her watch, was free from political influence. She also noted that a measure approved by voters last year, Measure X, created a new rule stating that if the city auditor wants to run for higher office they must immediately resign their position. Prior to this, she had to set clear boundaries with elected officials about the nature of her work.
“It didn’t take long to have people talk about politics or certain councilmembers to me,” Ruby said. “Had I not been strong in my conviction in what the office does, it could have been seen as a political position.”
Ruby ran for mayor and lost in 2014. She briefly left the city for a stint working as director of finance and administrative services for the Association of Bay Area Governments—a regional agency similar to the one she’ll soon join in San Diego. She also worked as a director of administration and facilities at the Metropolitan Transportation Commission.
Ruby ran again for City Auditor in 2018 and won. This time around, she discovered that the culture in City Hall was far more receptive to the auditor and her work.
“It was a culture that welcomed data, that wanted analytics, and that understood how important the performance audit function was,” Ruby said.
During her third term, Ruby’s office produced several critical audits. Just a few years after the disastrous Ghost Ship warehouse fire killed 36 people, her team slammed the Oakland Fire Department for failing to adequately inspect hundreds of buildings. In 2021, the auditor issued a whistleblower report that accused the director of Oakland’s Parks, Recreation and Youth Development Department of ducking city rules to hire contractors without a competitive bidding process and hiring friends and associates, among other wrongdoing. The director strongly objected to the findings.
Last year, the auditor published a highly anticipated analysis of Oakland’s homelessness services. Ruby revealed that Oakland officials did a poor job tracking $69 million spent on homeless service providers over a three-year period. The report also found that some of the signature projects, like “community cabin” shelters, failed to help a majority of residents transition into permanent housing.
Ruby said her office’s work on homeless audits in general constituted a high point for her tenure.
“We were strategic, we were thoughtful, we were data-driven,” Ruby said. “We were able to deliver to the city reports that were impactful and could be utilized.”
Under Ruby’s leadership, the City Auditor received the Knighton Award for its auditing work in 2014 and 2020. In 2022, Ruby was nominated as one of three candidates to be considered by Gov. Gavin Newsom for the job of California State Auditor.
Replacing Ruby as acting auditor is Michael Houston, who currently serves as assistant city auditor. Houston joined the office in June 2019 and served as a program manager overseeing investigations of whistleblower complaints. Prior to that, Houston worked at Cal State University East Bay conducting performance audits. Houston also worked for the City Auditor of San Jose. Houston has a master’s degree in public policy from UC Berkeley.
The city will hold a special election for a new auditor who will finish out Ruby’s term. After that, the next scheduled election for City Auditor is 2026. Houston said he intends to run for the seat.
Houston said the office will miss Ruby, but the office won’t be disrupted from its work.
“We have a great team, they’re experienced, they’re qualified, and they’re talented,” Houston told The Oaklandside. “There’s no doubt in my mind we’ll be able to keep this train moving.
A previous version of this article did not identify the fact that a special election for the auditor must take place before the regular election.