Salt Lake County employees might be wondering these days if there really is a new sheriff in town, since they have been confronted by auditors wearing police-style badges when they arrive to look at the books.
It's as if the auditors, overseen by elected County Auditor Gregory P. Hawkins, are poised to say: "Hands up! Move slowly away from your computer."
Many of these auditors have quietly told county colleagues that they feel a tad silly donning badges, but that is the order from Hawkins, whose relationship with other county officials has seen a few bumps.
The auditors began wearing badges to show their authority over other county workers after Hawkins lost a legal tussle with the mayor's office and County Council.
Hawkins, a self-described small-government, tightfisted, taxpayer-protecting Republican, seemed to have no problem spending taxpayer money in his battle with the mayor and council. He sued after the council shifted certain duties from the auditor's office to the mayor's office.
He then had the county hire on his behalf his former law partner, Blake Atkin, who tried to charge $450 an hour. Based on that hourly rate, Atkin billed the county $109,000 for legal services rendered from November 2011 to February 2012.
At least that was quite a bit lower than the $350,000 Hawkins originally told the council he might need to defend his office.
What did Atkin do to earn the $109,000? He filed a motion in 3rd District Court for a temporary restraining order to prevent the council from executing its budgeting move. That motion failed. He filed another motion for a restraining order, which also fizzled. He then sought a preliminary injunction. Again, denied. And he turned to federal court for a temporary restraining order. Same result.
Eventually, an arbiter was hired to settle the differences between Atkin and the county on the bill. The arbiter questioned the legitimacy of some of Atkin's billings and determined the lawyer was not worth $450 an hour. In the end, Atkin was awarded $39,000 on top of $15,000 he already had been paid.
The ordeal prompted the County Council to pass an ordinance that, had it been in effect at the time, would have required Hawkins to pay the attorney fees himself. It also spurred the GOP-dominated Utah Legislature to codify in state law the council's action to move specific responsibilities from the auditor to the mayor's office.
So now the auditors have badges. Next step: Perhaps Hawkins could follow then-Mayor Nancy Workman's lead and order flashing lights and sirens.