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Q and A with Drummond Kahn

by:  L.E. BASKOW, As the city’s director of audit services, Drummond Kahn makes sure Portland runs a tight ship. Unfortunately, that doesn’t make him the life of the party.

Every Friday, the Portland Tribune puts questions to a prominent - or not so prominent - local person.

Drummond Kahn likes to pepper his conversations with quotations from Shakespeare. And he gets the quotes right, word for word. Actually, that last part shouldn't surprise, since Kahn, director of audit services for the city of Portland, is all about getting things right. Exactly. Efficiently.

Kahn, 40, wants to make clear he's not that other type of auditor. He's not checking tax returns. As a government auditor, his job is to look into city agencies and policies to determine if they're working as they're supposed to.

As for Shakespeare, Kahn's favorite line is from 'A Midsummer Night's Dream.' Puck the prankster is listening in as the queen and king discuss their plans, and whispers: 'I'll be an auditor, an actor too, perhaps. If I have cause.'

When Kahn comes knocking at your door, you don't want to give him cause.

Portland Tribune: When you go to a party and someone asks what you do, what do you say?

Drummond Kahn: I must not go to very many parties. There's the old story, How can you tell who the airline pilot is at a party? The answer is, just stand around long enough and he'll come around to tell you.

Auditors are kind of the opposite. The story of the extroverted auditor is the one who looks at your shoes while he's talking.

Tribune: So people's eyes glaze over?

Kahn: Their first thought is that auditing is kind of a final review that looks at their taxes, that can hurt them. And then you explain what you do, you do the kind that can help them by reducing inefficiency and waste.

Tribune: And by then their eyes are glazed over.

Kahn: Usually they leave by the time I get to that part of the discussion. By then they're off to the potato chips and the Lil' Smokies.

Tribune: But you find your work interesting, right?

Kahn: This is a wonderful profession. It helps organizations study and achieve their objectives.

Tribune: But what makes it fun?

Kahn: The ability to encounter new challenges in organizations and help management understand and solve those challenges.

Tribune: Let's try again. Give me an example of one time when you had fun on the job.

Kahn: I've only been doing this for 18 years.

Tribune: Try.

Kahn: We had a complaint from a used-car dealer that they had bought excess property from a U.S. nuclear laboratory at an auction. But it was really all the components of a plant that could process spent nuclear fuel into weapons-grade plutonium.

Tribune: What? Did he think he was buying used cars?

Kahn: No. He knew what he was buying. At first he wanted scrap metal, but then he realized it might be worth more.

Tribune: So what did you do?

Kahn: I was traipsing around Los Alamos surplus sales looking for nuclear parts.

Tribune: And what happened?

Kahn: The federal government ended up buying it back from him at a tidy profit. And I've heard Michael Keaton has the movie rights to this story.

Tribune: So you're like a detective?

Kahn: We have audits ranging from how well the police solve crimes to whether parking meters are working.

Tribune: By the way, how are the new parking meters working? A few minutes ago I spent 10 minutes in the rain trying to get a sticker to come out of one of them.

Kahn: The new meters are working better than the old meters in terms of accuracy and down time. Our audit showed, however, there were still problems with some parkers using the new meters. Maybe you're one of them.

Tribune: Do you have children?

Kahn: Twins who are four.

Tribune: Do you run a particularly efficient household?

Kahn: We run a very efficient household, and part of our efficiency is proven by the fact that we have twins. The years of changing diapers and grinding baby food are compressed, and we gain some nice economies of scale.

Tribune: Is your wife OK with this?

Kahn: Oh, yes. She was an examiner for the Malcolm Baldridge National Quality award.

Tribune: No danger of too much efficiency in one household?

Kahn: Throw in two kids and you need all the efficiency you can get.

Tribune: You talk a good game, but who does the laundry in your house?

Kahn: No comment. I'm working on robots.

Tribune: What's a difficult part of your work?

Kahn: The optimist believes the glass is half-full. The pessimist believes the glass is half-empty. An auditor thinks you're using a glass twice as big as you actually need.

When we walk into an office there's a concern that people may not like us. So we have an affirmation we repeat: 'At least our families love us.'

Tribune: Not after that crack you made about laundry and robots.

- Peter Korn