One of mayoral candidate JoAnne Vigil Coppler’s primary targets as she attempts to unseat Mayor Alan Webber has been the health of the city’s recent fiscal audit.
Opponents, including environmental engineer Alexis Martinez Johnson, have harangued Webber over recent missteps in the Finance Department, including consecutive late audit submissions.
“When you have late audits, you are really behind in the information and this money, you need to be accountable,” Vigil Coppler said at a recent candidate forum.
The recent discussion about city audits likely will be on voters’ minds with the Nov. 2 election nearing.
Both the fiscal year 1980-81 and 1981-82 audits during her stint as personnel director contained qualified opinions, which the investment website Investopedia describes as a situation in which an auditor determines there is a material issue with accounting policies but it’s not one that misrepresents financial facts.
The audits’ findings included payroll changes being implemented prior to obtaining the signature of a department supervisor.
The audits, conducted by Downey & Sisneros, CPAs, also recommended individual departments take responsibility to check payroll to make sure that paychecks were not issued to nonexistent employees and that proper compensation was being provided to employees based on the compensation scale.
On July 29, 1982, Vigil Coppler offered her resignation.
According to a resignation letter sent to then-City Manager Jerry Manzagol, Vigil Coppler, then going by JoAnne Vigil, wrote she regretted the city manager and the mayor felt her resignation was a “necessary action.”
Vigil Coppler said she wasn’t asked to resign and denied her resignation had anything to do with the findings of the audit.
“It was an exempt position,” she said Wednesday. “I am not going to sit around and wait for anything to happen. I fully understand how exempt positions work.”
Sisto Abeyta, Vigil Coppler’s campaign manager, said Vigil Coppler had “no physical impact on the budgets or the audits or anything else, other than processing paperwork.”
Similarly, Cody Peluso, communication director for Vigil Coppler’s campaign, wrote in an email that payroll operations were in the Finance Department, which Vigil Coppler had no authority over, and not the Human Resources Department.
“Holding the current administration to high standards simply because JoAnne Vigil Coppler was an employee for a previous administration is far from hypocritical,” Peluso wrote.
“The problems under this mayor have been severe, reoccurring and unresolved, plain and simple,” he later said.
Fred Lopez, city controller from 1982-95, said that during his tenure the city was running a “pretty tight ship.”
“She really didn’t have anything to do with finances,” he said. “We made sure of that. We are the finance directors; we did the budget.”
Lopez added that the state Department of Finance and Administration oversaw Santa Fe finances for a time prior to 1981 due to issues that arose in the late 1970s.
“I remember it distinctly because I was offered the job in 1981, and I turned it down because I saw the mess,” he said.
He said he accepted the position in 1982 after being persuaded by a colleague.
“I just want to be clear that there was no shenanigans going on in payroll during my period,” Lopez said. “What happened before and after, what the hell can I do?”
Vigil Coppler’s explanation of her departure seemed to be corroborated Wednesday by Manzagol, who said he didn’t remember Vigil Coppler’s resignation letter but that he believed the reason she resigned stemmed from an administration change.
Around the time the letter was sent, then-Mayor Louis R. Montaño, who died in 2008, was starting his four-year term and Manzagol believed Montaño was looking to fill what he considered a key position with “someone else” he preferred.
The now-84-year-old Manzagol said he didn’t think the resignation had anything to do with poor performance on Vigil Coppler’s part.
Vigil Coppler would return to the city from 1991-94 as human resources director under Mayor Sam Pick. In those audits, findings cited were related to overtime and compensatory pay, including some instances in which overtime was paid at an incorrect rate.
In a statement, Sandra Wechsler, campaign manager for Webber’s campaign, said the audits raised “serious questions” about Vigil Coppler’s time at the city, questioning the validity of campaign statements made by the candidate.
“JoAnne is clearly lying about her record,” Wechsler wrote. “She has said on several occasions that when she worked at the City, she had ‘perfect audits.’ These records definitely tell a different story.”
Vigil Coppler has touted her background in city and state government, especially her human resources/personnel stints.
Prior to retiring as court director/clerk for the First Judicial District Court, she also worked as a human resources director for the city of Santa Fe, Los Alamos County, and the state Taxation and Revenue Department. She also served on the transition teams for two New Mexico governors.
Wechsler wrote that Webber, who has highlighted his background in business, has had nothing but “clean” audits based on the lack of “significant findings” and no “fiscal management” issues — a stance that has drawn criticism from Vigil Coppler’s camp.
The most recent audit, which was submitted by the accounting firm CliftonLarsonAllen almost a year late, carried an “unmodified” finding and had in total 21 findings, including issues with reporting for federal grants and improper accounting procedures.
When asked if it was fair to characterize the audit as “clean,” Wechsler wrote in an email that a “clean audit” is still possible with findings.
According to Investopedia, an “unqualified opinion” essentially means a “clean audit.”
The report found 10 “significant” findings and eight “material” deficiencies, the most serious of findings.