Robert E. Fronke, a longtime, trailblazing city auditor who fought for the independence of the auditor’s office in making better use of taxpayer money, has died. He was 92.
Fronke died April 29 following complications from prostate surgery at St. Mary’s Medical Center, according to Mark Fronke, his son.
“Bob Fronke was the people’s auditor,” current City Auditor Laura Doud said Sunday. “He was one of the first to monitor how city departments were operating and spending taxpayer money. He felt that the auditor should do more than just audit financial reports. He was a mentor of mine, and I will miss him.”
Fronke also was active in the community as president of the Long Beach Rotary Club, chairman of the Gold Star Manor board and president of the St. Mary Medical Foundation.
Fronke, a CPA, became city auditor in 1976 when the City Council appointed him to complete the term of retiring City Auditor Murray T. Courson. Fronke was then elected by voters to four additional four-year terms, retiring after 16 years as auditor in 1992.
Beginning with his first term as auditor, Fronke was a strong defender of the independence of the office. This sometimes ruffled the feathers of city managers and department heads who didn’t like someone looking over their shoulders and making recommendations on how they could be more efficient in spending taxpayer money.
City Manager John Dever, who just died March 29, was one of those who didn’t especially like the outside criticism coming from the auditor’s office.
Mark Fronke told me Sunday of an acrimonious incident between his father and Dever on this issue years ago.
“I was at St. Mary’s reading a newspaper story to my dad after his surgery about John Dever’s passing when it prompted him to tell me something he said he had never told anyone before,” Mark said. He said Dever was upset with Fronke’s audit about the Long Beach Arena or some other city operation and came into his dad’s office, poked his finger in his chest, and said, “If you don’t stop saying this stuff, I’m going to throw you off the roof of City Hall.”
“My dad said he stood his ground and told Dever he was just doing his job and would continue to do it whether Dever liked it or not,” Mark told me. “My dad said Dever was a hard-nosed ex-Marine who was a really good city manager but just didn’t like outside criticism.”
In 1979, a Charter Revision Advisory Committee recommended a change in the city charter to limit the city auditor to financial audits and prohibit operational audits of city departments unless specifically requested by the City Council.”
Fronke argued against the change, saying in an interview that it was clear that there was pressure from taxpayers to obtain more and better information from the auditor’s office about the operation of their government, not less.
“In this contentious dispute, Fronke prevailed by convincing the council that the scope of modern auditing includes operations or performance audits,” Doud said. “He demonstrated that operational audits, when combined with traditional financial audits, produced cost savings from efficiencies and improved effectiveness.”
The council voted unanimously against the change.
Doud said major technological changes also occurred during Fronke’s tenure, and the city’s financial and accounting system became computerized with the installation of a new Financial Management Information System to replace the city’s old ledger system.
But she said the installation “created a nightmare of unintended consequences” because of untrained personnel and delays. The new system had so many problems that, during one month, checks for the city’s business were handwritten because they could not be printed, Doud said. Fronke got the problem fixed.
Fronke retired from the auditor’s job in 1992 to take a faculty position at Pepperdine University’s School of Business and Management. When he retired from the city, the Press-Telegram said in an editorial:
“He rubbed some people the wrong way, but for the right reasons. His suggestions led to consolidation of oil operations, computerized accounting and improved handling of everything from parking tickets to bus fares. When he leaves, it will be with a city in his debt.”
Fronke’s son said he thought his dad wore those editorial words “like a badge of honor.”
Fronke was born on Nov. 2, 1926, in Kansas City, Missouri. After World War II ended, he served in the Navy for 24 years and was stationed in many places, including Corpus Christi, Texas, where he met Martha Schulze and convinced her to travel to his next assignment in Yokahama, Japan. They got married there in 1952.
During his Navy service, he completed his bachelor’s degree at the University of Georgia and earned a master of business administration from Stanford. His final Navy assignment was as the supply corps officer at the Long Beach Naval Shipyard. He and his wife fell in love with Long Beach and stayed here. His final rank in the Navy was commander.
Terry Geiling, president and CEO of the Gold Star Manor, said Fronke was “a renaissance man ahead of his time, succeeding in careers as a military leader, education professor, business manager and public official.”
Geiling said Fronke, as Gold Star Manor chairman, “was a no nonsense, firm leader who ran a tight ship. When he stepped down, we planted a tree in front of the Recreation Hall in his honor. He was very proud of that tree and kept checking it to make sure it was doing well. It is alive and growing taller every year.”
When Fronke served as Rotary Club president in 1989-90, he supported bringing women into the club.
“When he announced his board, I think he felt the need — and was proud — to put a woman on his board and selected me as his assistant to the president,” Cam Killingsworth said. “It was a year when I got to know him, and we remained friends since.”
Killingsworth became the first woman president of the Long Beach Rotary Club in 1998.
In his spare time, Fronke also did landscape painting and enjoyed playing bridge and poker, his son said. He also was active in the Catholic Church, including volunteering at three churches as he moved around the area: St. Matthew’s, St. Bartholomew’s and St. Hedwig’s.
Survivors include his wife of 67 years, Martha; four children, Alan Fronke, Mark Fronke, Janice Fronke McRae and Matthew Fronke; nine grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
A memorial service will be held at St. Hedwig’s, 11482 Los Alamitos Blvd., Los Alamitos, at 1 p.m. Saturday, May 11. A celebration of life will be held at the Navy Golf Course, 5660 Orangewood Ave., in Cypress from 2:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m.