City & County of Honolulu

Auditor slams
lax city agency

The Department of Design
and Construction allegedly obstructed
an inquiry by the City Council

A city department that oversees $579 million in design and construction projects improperly switched funds from one project to another, keeps poor records and has inconsistent management, a City Council audit contends.

The recently released 37-page audit of the Department of Design and Construction's management of the city's construction and capital projects also alleges that the department hindered the auditor by providing misleading information and refusing to provide other requested information.

Tim Steinberger, who took over as department director last month, denied that staff intentionally withheld information from the auditor, and said that some of the access problems may have stemmed from documents not being properly filed.

The audit by the Office of Council Services, the research arm of the City Council, contends that the department moved $577,383 budgeted for a police communications system to a Honolulu Police Department mobile data computer project instead.

"We do not know how prevalent in the city is the practice of using funding from one project for a different project," the audit says. "Clearly, such diversion of funding authority is contrary to the intent of the budget ordinance and the Charter."

The audit also alleges that the department is suffering from a heavy workload that has led to rushed plans, impaired bids and unnecessary change orders to contracts, and that it has been lax in reporting project information to the City Council and other agencies.

Steinberger acknowledged some of the problems.

"I guess in general, there are some items pointed out in the audit that we could improve on, and actually, prior to seeing the audit, we had already started moving in that direction," he said.

This is the first audit of the department since a 1998 city reorganization pulled oversight of city capital improvement projects from individual departments to the Department of Design and Construction.

The audit details some of the challenges faced by the department, including having its fourth director since 1999 and a huge workload of managing more than 1,000 ongoing projects totaling $579 million.

Steinberger also points out that the department is hampered by a high number of vacancies, including key engineering positions.

The audit looked at three projects in assessing the performance of the department. They were the Kahaluu Flood Control Project/Kahaluu Regional Park, the Salt Lake Boulevard design and landscaping enhancement, and the police mobile data computer system that gives officers access to automobile registration and warrants.

While acknowledging some of the criticism, Steinberger disputed other parts of the audit.

For example, two of the three projects picked by the auditor began before the 1998 reorganization that created the department.

"It's not really fair to use these projects as saying ... this is DDC's performance," he said.

He also noted the audit's main complaint on the third project, the Salt Lake improvements, is a conflict-of-interest allegation. An unpaid consultant for the area's vision team helped define the project and then eventually was awarded the design contract.

"This was before my time, but I'm 99 percent sure there was zero knowledge (by staff) of that consultant having anything to do with that vision team," he said.

The overall recommendation by the audit is that the department needs to establish written policies and procedures to better manage the contracts and projects.

The department, Steinberger said, has started moving forward with some of the audit's recommendations, including establishing policy and procedure manuals and agreements with other departments with which it works.

"We need to have a very clear mission and clear agreements as to what our roles are and what the other departments' roles are," Steinberger said.

City & County of Honolulu

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