REGION — After weeks of debate, the SANDAG board of directors on March 24 decided to hire an internal candidate to replace its outgoing independent auditor.
Independent Performance Auditor Mary Khoshmashrab, hired in April 2019 and recently announced her retirement, will step down in October to assist with the transition.
Under her tenure, Khoshmashrab’s department has unearthed several issues with SANDAG, notably thousands in “questionable” and “improper” credit card purchases, millions in questionable contract increases and nearly $2 million in missing toll fees on state Route 125. The audits have also reported a lack of oversight, documentation and employee training.
Several auditors encouraged the board to hire an internal candidate after several members lobbied for weeks to hire outside consultants to oversee the office.
“We do not attack SANDAG,” said associate auditor Michael Ryan. “It bothers us when it is used to attack the agency. Our work is meant to help and protect the agency. Our work requires us to be truly independent. Mary, being truly independent, has allowed us to find what we’ve found. We need someone as independent as her when she retires.”
Doug DePete and Krystal Carranza, both auditors at SANDAG, also voiced support for Khoshmashrab and keeping the position at SANDAG.
“This is the hardest working and most cohesive team I’ve been on,” DePete said. “They support each other and want to make SANDAG better. Our audits will make headlines…until we make SANDAG better and the media won’t notice.”
During a March 17 executive committee meeting, Chairwoman Nora Vargas and Vice Chair Sean Elo-Riveria of San Diego attempted to push through a third-party consultant based on SANDAG General Counsel John Kirk’s interpretation of state law.
But San Marcos Mayor Rebecca Jones and audit committee members, including Khoshmashrab, pushed back against hiring a third-party firm to exercise control over SANDAG employees.
The meeting became contentious when Vargas, citing “processes,” allowed Khoshmashrab three minutes to respond to Kirk’s opinion. Jones said Khoshmashrab, a SANDAG employee, deserved unlimited time as a critical key figure in the presentation.
Other committee members also felt it was best to keep the position in-house.
“I strongly favor keeping the position internal … for many reasons,” Dave Zito, chairman of the Audit Committee, said during the March 24 meeting.
The Executive Committee eventually agreed to keep the position at SANDAG and within the boundaries of Assembly Bill 805, a state law establishing the Office of the Independent Auditor.
The independent auditor’s office, charged with ensuring financial compliance, has just five employees despite Khoshmashrab’s recommendation of at least 15 workers to properly oversee the agency’s annual budget of more than $1 billion.