Ken Garcia: OES audit presses panic button, but you need not be alarmed

Just to show you where to get your news first, I can tell you what one of the hyped headlines in the local papers will be next week. A word of advice — it will help to read between the lines.

“Audit blasts S.F. emergency officials for lack of preparedness’’ and other derivatives will be on display. And there is some truth in that — but it hardly tells the whole story.

For months now, The City’s budget analyst office has had a team of auditors poring over the books and files at San Francisco’s Office of Emergency Services/Homeland Security. The audit, scheduled to be released Monday, was ordered by Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin last year in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. It was also politically motivated, because OES chief Annemarie Conroy is not a fan favorite among many supervisors, one of whom had already called for her firing.

The lengthy audit has been the subject of long discussions between auditors and staff in the mayor’s office in recent weeks, and some of the findings prompted Mayor Gavin Newsom on Wednesday night to issue an executive directive. Among the 19 items in the order is a mandate that each city department appoint a disaster preparedness coordinator, that OES provide a timeline to complete a new strategic plan and that each department submit a detailed spending plan for current allocations of Homeland Security funds.

But, behind the scenes, the audit has been a huge source of contention — in part because earlier versions of it were, to be kind, somewhat curious. Although it praised the emergency response agency for putting together most of the reforms in a highly critical 2003 civil grand jury report and for making significant improvements in emergency preparedness, the vast majority of the report focused on details large and small that were critical of OES. Many of the details are eyebrow-raising — such as pointing out that OES is no longer located in the mayor’s office — a decision made by former Mayor Willie Brown three years ago.

Indeed, even OES’s planned move out of its Turk Street headquarters to a new office on Van Ness Avenue was brought under scrutiny, even though city emergency officials say its current operations center is too small and antiquated.

The draft report also singled out Conroy’s decision to get a master’s degree in homeland defense and security at the prestigious Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey — in essence criticizing her for taking the time to get the training that she was earlier criticized for not having.

And it’s hard to know what to make of the news that the OES/HS department changed its name without any input from the public or our austere Board of Supervisors. But it was outlined in the draft audit nonetheless — showing that no small detail went unturned.

The agency was also dinged for not spending about $80 million in federal grants fast enough — a situation reflected in cities around the country that were suddenly inundated with hundreds of millions of dollars in Homeland Security funds after the new anti-terrorism agency was created.

Strangely, the draft report also said members of the Board of Supervisors were not aware of OES activities — even though a few of them sit on The City’s disaster council and my own newspaper reported that the mayor called for the board to hold a public hearing on emergency preparedness on the anniversary of the ’06 earthquake.

I guess that’s why you call them drafts.

Yet the bottom line, no matter what the final report says, is that The City’s emergency preparedness agency is vastly improved, has never had such a talented staff to run it and that it is leaps beyond almost any of its municipal counterparts in the Bay Area. Audits by their very nature are supposed to single out problems, but lost in all the minute details is that a large number of emergency response plans and training programs that never existed before now do — and that other cities are beginning to copy them.

Of course, it’s hard to adequately evaluate emergency coordination until a disaster strikes. And by issuing an executive order, Newsom is acknowledging that the system is far from perfect. He told me that he was committed to carrying out a vast majority of recommendations contained in the audit — without any knowledge that I had seen an earlier version.

It’s too early to tell the political reaction to the audit, since it won’t be out for several days. But I’m sure the spin cycle will be robust and reflected in the headlines.

They’ll be worth reading — as long as you get the full story.

Ken Garcia’s column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and weekends in The Examiner. E-mail him at kgarcia@examiner.com or call him at (415) 359-2663.

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