Tuesday, September 17, 2019

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Stray Thoughts

Some boards neglecting their duty to taxpayers

1/9/2019

During most of my career at the Des Moines Register, all purchases for the news staff and all expense reimbursement claims went through the newsroom’s business manager.

Through the years, there was turnover in the job. But two people held the job for much of that time, and they had one common trait: They examined each purchase and each expense form as if the money were being paid out of their own bank account, not from the company’s.

Judging from news reports in recent weeks, there are government entities in Iowa that need clones of Vern and Marsha to look out for Iowa taxpayers.

Regrettably, some high-ranking government officials either are not paying attention to how taxpayers’ money is being spent or, more accurately, misspent — or they are taking a cavalier well-it’s-not-my-money attitude.

Either way, this is why it is exasperating when many government entities try to discourage close citizen scrutiny of their operations and decisions.

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Some agencies do this by gouging the public who want to see copies of records to satisfy themselves tax money is being wisely spent and decisions are proper.

The recently documented problems in the Waukee and Mason City school districts and at the Iowa Finance Authority illustrate why Iowans should be concerned with policies that stifle discussion or put the cost of records outside the reach of many people.

Some school boards in Iowa — Iowa City is an example — have policies that try to discourage members of the school board from publicly disagreeing with the superintendent’s statements or recommendations or granting interviews in which they criticize decisions the board makes.

Last year, a resident of Denison expressed concern over the way government credit cards were used by top administrators at the Crawford County Memorial Hospital.

Specifically, the resident was troubled the hospital’s board of trustees was approving lump sum payment of the credit card bills without seeing an itemization of the transactions or the receipts that justified the purchases. Those lump sum bills totaled several hundred dollars some months and upwards of $10,000 other months.

He asked to review the itemized bills and was told it would cost him about $500 for employees to retrieve and copy the credit card statements for one year.

The Denison man’s concerns were not out of line. He had read news reports around Iowa about the misuse of government credit cards — and the potential for abuse —- where there was inadequate oversight by government boards.

Three audits and investigations released in December by the state auditor’s office underscore just how legitimate the man’s anxieties were:

WAUKEE — The auditor documented $130,200 in improper spending by Waukee School District officials or expenditures that were not in the taxpayers’ best interest. That included $83,000 for five team-building retreats in Kansas City and Omaha for administrators; $48,600 in meals for officials at local restaurants; and $27,900 for new furniture for the superintendent’s office.

IOWA FINANCE AUTHORITY: The auditor found widespread financial mismanagement of the agency executive director Dave Jamison. That included $549,400 in improper spending, expenses for which there was no documentation, and expenses that lacked a public purpose. In addition, the auditor took Jamison and the agency to task for failing to adequately analyze and justify the decision to move their offices out of a state-owned office building into space that was leased in another building. One board member said he did not see the comparison of the costs of renovating versus leasing until after the lease was signed.

MASON CITY: The auditor found $2.2 million in improper spending by the Mason City School District, including $1 million in raises for various administrators that exceeded the amounts approved by the school board, plus allowances for cell phones and car use that had not been approved by the board and that was not in the officials’ contracts. In addition, the district paid the departing superintendent for 30 days of unused vacation for the next school year, plus another $93,900, which was half of what she would have been paid in salary during the coming school year had she not quit.

In each of these cases, the boards gave too little oversight that expenditures complied with state law and government policies. Too often, the boards failed to understand that the top administrator worked for them and that they did not work for those administrators.

How does Iowa prevent such abuses?

It starts with members of the boards taking these roles not for the prestige or to add an item on their resumes. It starts with wanting to serve the public — not the superintendent, not the agency’s executive director.

But the responsibility for ensuring this occurs also rests with taxpayers. We need to stay informed and pay attention to what occurs with our government. We should not be afraid to ask questions or demand answers.

The Iowa Legislature also needs to bring more clarity to the public records law. It is far from clear what a “reasonable fee” is for receiving photocopies of government documents.

Agencies are prohibited from making a profit on the sale of photocopies. But it’s hard to believe it is reasonable to charge $1,200 for copies 100 pages of records.

The Wisconsin attorney general announced last summer that government bodies there cannot require citizens to pay exorbitant fees for copies of records and cannot force the public to pay for having government lawyers review and redact portions of documents before making them public.

The attorney general also said the cost of making black-and-white photocopies in his office is 1.35 cents per page. That price will come as a surprise in Iowa, where government bodies routinely charge 50 cents per page and where $1 per page is not unheard of.

When you look at the amount of money the Iowa state auditor found was being misused, one wishes government was more zealous about rooting out waste and abuse in their own officials’ spending and was not so intent on using cost to discourage citizens from being watchdogs over their government. ♦

Randy Evans can be reached at DMRevans2810@gmail.com

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