Salt Lake County Auditor Greg Hawkins wants to take the County Council to court over the governing body's decision to move the county's budget office from the auditor's domain to that of the county mayor. Legally, that's his right, perhaps even his duty, if the auditor can make the case that the proposed change harms not just his own influence, but the public interest.
But in the court of public opinion, Hawkins is proving to be the best witness against himself. It is hard to buy the argument that a public official who wants to evade the county's normal procurement process and bill the taxpayers an exorbitant hourly rate in order to hire a former business partner is the best person to be drafting the county's budgets.
Even Hawkins' fellow Republicans on the council suggested Tuesday that it is the auditor who needs oversight, putting aside his request to hire outside counsel until he goes through the proper channels.
Hawkins doesn't like the idea that the mayor, who has long been charged by the county charter with the job of presenting a draft budget to the council every year, should also have all the revenue-projecting and budget-drafting buttons, levers and staff in his office, effective Jan. 1. Those functions now reside in the auditor's department.
Hawkins says the old way represents necessary checks and balances. But the mayor, council and common sense see it as an unnecessary duplication of effort. The checks and balances are preserved by splitting the budget-writing function, in the hands of the mayor, from the ultimate authority to approve budgets, and tax rates, which continues to reside with the council.
That is the balance that works well at the state and federal levels. It places all the responsibility in the hands of two branches of government, legislative and chief executive, that voters have heard of and have elected to fulfil, through their taxing and spending recommendations and decisions, their duties as not just bean-counters, but policy makers.
The auditor? He audits. And perhaps enforces fiscal policies like the one Hawkins is seeking to evade.
County policy requires offices that want to hire outside counsel to go through an selection procedure handled by in the district attorney's office. Hawkins, though, was brazen enough to skip that step and to ask the council for as much as $375,000 to hire a former business partner, Blake Atkin, to pursue the suit. For $450 an hour.
Bad idea. Bad timing. Bad politics. Bad government. And a really bad argument for the case that Hawkins is better suited than the mayor for the job of drafting anybody's budget.