LA Controller: Mejia Performance So Far

LA CITY CONTROLLER - I am a semi-retired public sector manager.  When I was working full-time, I managed a municipal performance audit program.  If you don’t know the definition of a performance audit, “Performance audits evaluate the efficiency and effectiveness of government programs to determine if there are ways of making them work better. We use laws and leading practices as criteria to evaluate City departments and make recommendations when we find opportunities for improvement. Performance audits answer questions such as: 1) Are programs achieving their intended objectives or outcomes? 2) Are services provided efficiently and/or equitably? 3) Are legal requirements and rules being met? 4) Are programs using evidence-based best practices?” (Seattle City Auditor website).  In short, performance audits measure outcomes—the measurable results of a program’s operations related to their costs.  If you’re wondering what that looks like in real life, consider that a routine audit by the City of San Francisco of office supply contracts eventually led to a $68 million settlement between Office Depot and 18  California cities that had been overcharged for office products. 

The gold standard for public sector performance auditing is the U.S. Government Accountability Office’s Government Auditing Standards, or “Yellow Book.”  The Yellow Book contains detailed requirements for financial and performance audits, and professional standards for those who conduct them.  The Standards include strict ethical requirements.  Most professional public sector audit shops submit to regular peer reviews to certify they meet GAO Standards.  Many professional auditors hold professional certifications as Certified Internal Auditors and/or Certified Government Auditing Professionals; the certifying organization, the Institute of Internal Auditors, also holds its certificate holders to high professional and ethical standards. 

Until December 2022, the City of Los Angeles City Controller’s Office was one of the premier public sector audit shops in the country.  Under leaders like Laura Chick and Ron Galperin, the Office often spoke truth to power by providing honest, and often scathing, audits of City agencies. The Controller’s 2022 report on HHH funding called out the “unacceptably slow” pace and high costs of supportive housing construction. 

Then Kenneth Mejia was elected City Controller. He came into office tainted by claiming to be a licensed CPA, even though his certification had expired.  He also came into office with a philosophy that is a clear violation of professional ethics, and that could very well render the Controller’s Office useless. 

Let’s look at some of his new hires.  Besides the 18-year-old he has running his social media division, he hired Ashley Bennet for the fabricated position of Director of Homelessness in the Office of Accountability.  This could be a valuable position. The City pays millions of taxpayer dollars to service providers, often through no-bid contracts managed by individual Council offices. Filled by a person with the right qualifications, the office could finally provide some accountability for the city’s miserable track record of homeless intervention.  Instead, Mr. Mejia appointed Ms. Bennet, whose only qualifications appear to be a short stint with LAHSA as an outreach worker and being a founding member of Ground Game LA, a non-profit advocacy group of dubious achievements. She and Mr. Mejia are passionate advocates of Housing First, the failed program of providing housing for the homeless with no requirements to commit to sobriety or counseling.  In fact, Ms. Bennet was dismissed from LAHSA for confronting L.A. park rangers trying to clear Echo Park.  She referred to the Echo Park encampment as “providing a ‘new vision’ of homeless communities.”  As The L.A. Times recently reported, that encampment was the site of at least four deaths, one of which was an 18-year old who died from a drug overdose. The encampment was also infamous for drug dealing, prostitution, and harassment of local residents. 

Now Ms. Bennet is in charge of monitoring the very agencies she once worked for and assessing their performance in light of her idealized vision of homeless encampments. Section 3.30b of the GAO’s audit standards describes the effect of bias in and audit: “Bias threat: The threat that an auditor will, as a result of political, ideological, social, or other convictions, take a position that is not objective.” Does anyone really think Ms. Bennet, with her clear bias against anything other than universal no-barrier housing, can objectively audit the service providers she supports? 

Mr. Mejia’s other executive appointments reflect his Progressive/Green Party bona fides. Instead of hiring experienced professionals, he’s filled key positions with fellow ideologues who have no interest in being objective and doing the hard work. 

Mr. Mejia, a proud police abolitionist, has already deployed “observers” to protests to monitor police activities. As millions of tax dollars pour into the coffers of unaccountable non-profit homeless service agencies, he recently announced he’ll initiate a performance audit of the use of police helicopters.  Clearly, he views the office as a pulpit to expound his Green Party/DSA philosophy, rather than the objective oversight the department is supposed to provide. 

None of this would mean much if it had no repercussions.  But it will. GAO standards require an auditor to withdraw from an audit if bias cannot be mitigated.  In Mejia and Bennet’s case, it’s impossible to mitigate the bias because the people in charge of the audit are the ones who are biased. If they choose to ignore GAO standards, there is a very good chance the Controller’s Office will lose its certification.  One of the consequences of losing certification is that the office will no longer be qualified to perform financial audits required by the state and federal governments. The Controller will have to contract for these audits, wasting hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars.  Losing verification also means any reports issued by the office will have no more impact than an op-ed piece in a local paper. Audited departments can simply say the Controller isn’t qualified to perform objective audits, and ignore the audit results, even if they’re accurate. 

The world of public service auditors is small, and word spreads quickly.  Mr. Mejia’s penchant for snappy Tik Tok posts means little to professional auditors. An auditor’s job isn’t glamorous or made for sound bites.  It often involves hours of poring over endless documents, spending days doing field observations, and verifying every fact before issuing a report.   The word is already out that Mejia is all about Mejia and not the serious work required of his office.  Professional auditors are already looking for a way out of the Mejia circus. 

The damage Kenneth Mejia is causing will affect more than just the Controller’s Office. LAHSA, HACLA, and the non-profits which have done nothing to alleviate the homeless crisis will continue to profit from endless cash flows, now augmented by Measure ULA. People will continue to wither and die on the street while Mejia and Bennet spin the facts to meet their agenda.  Actual waste and fraud will go unreported while the Controller churns out ideology-driven propaganda instead of real audits. And Los Angeles will have lost one of the few official voices willing to speak truth to power.


(Tim Campbell is a resident of Westchester who spent a career in the public service and managed a municipal performance audit program.  He focuses on outcomes instead of process. The opinions expressed by Tim Campbell are not necessarily those of CityWatchLA.com.)