An Austin Water spokesman accepted a favor from a website creator whose work he approved for the city at a wildly inflated cost, a city audit found this month.
The city auditor’s office received a tip last March that Jason Hill, then a program manager for Austin Water’s public information office, “steers advertising dollars to his friends and other people with (whom) he does business outside of work time.”
When auditors looked into it, they found Hill approved online advertisements to Austin Water customers with a marketing company totaling $67,000 between 2013 and 2016. That netted redirects from the company’s website only 55 times — at a cost-per-click of more than $1,200, according to the audit first reported this week by the Austin Monitor.
Meanwhile, the company, identified by a city official as NextGen, gave Hill free help building a website for a second, noncity job, auditors found. Records listed that company as the administrator of Hill’s website for his realty business.
Hill resigned from the city Jan. 6, the same day he responded to a draft of the audit, calling it “exaggerated and biased.” A former TV news anchor with KVUE, he began working for the city in 2010. In his job for Austin Water, he was responsible for the “heavy lifting” of advertising, including proposing vendors and verifying returns on cost, his supervisor Kevin Buchman told auditors.
Hill was aware of city ethics policies, auditors said. In fact, he has been featured in several ethics training videos, including narrating the one produced last year.
Auditors have also investigated Buchman for accepting a real estate evaluation of his home from Hill. Their November report found Buchman inappropriately requested that evaluation, and exchanged follow-up emails with Hill about either selling or leasing the property, potentially impairing “his independence in judgment” as the supervisor who reviews Hill’s job performance.
Daryl Slusher, Austin Water’s assistant director for environmental affairs, said there would likely be some kind of disciplinary action against Buchman this week. The department waited to take action on the previous audit because it knew the second one was coming, he said.
Austin Water advertisements are typically aimed at bringing an informational message to customers, usually about water conservation or watering schedules, Slusher said. In this case, the marketing company was responsible for placing advertisements on Lake Travis marina websites to let nearby residents know about construction of Water Treatment Plant 4.
The department is undergoing a review of its other advertising contracts, and it has already ended the one at issue with NextGen, Slusher said. The department is spending less on advertising anyway, due to fewer drought issues, he said.
Auditors said Hill told them the website help was a “professional courtesy” — wording he later denied. Hill said he had paid for the registration of the other website himself, but was unable to prove it, according to the audit. The audit doesn’t name the web company, or Hill’s other job, but Keller Williams Realty lists him as an agent. It lists a realty website for him that has been disabled.
Hill and Buchman told auditors that it’s not their practice to look at web analytics when determining how to advertise city services.
Buchman told auditors “that ‘we don’t really look at metrics and measures’ and ‘he wasn’t very familiar’ with the vendor in question,” the audit says.
Auditors found Hill’s handling of the advertising for Austin Water “grossly uneconomic” and a violation of city anti-waste bulletins. Hill abused his office and violated gift provisions, they found.
In a letter to Nathan Wiebe, chief of the auditor’s integrity investigations unit, Hill disputed the findings, calling himself “disappointed by the tone of this report despite fully cooperating with a 10 month investigation.”
The contract was a fine use of money, he added, saying the $67,000 was “spent strengthening the Austin Water brand while raising awareness and distributing important messaging in the Lake Travis area.”
Austin Water Director Greg Meszaros responded to Hill’s letter by saying it was inappropriate for Hill to use Austin Water letterhead to respond to the investigation and saying the department would look at its internal advertising controls.