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A Times Editorial

Why is county silent on audit's findings?

© St. Petersburg Times
published October 13, 2002

What is the appropriate response for a boss who is told, in detail, of problems within the organization?

One option would be to ask questions and insist that the problems get fixed. Another would be to ignore the bad news and tell anyone who asks about it to be quiet.

Those are the two approaches county commissioners took on Sept. 24 when they reviewed internal audits pointing out troubles in the Fire Training Center and in the county's fuel operations. Unfortunately, the push for silence carried the day.

A story in Monday's Times noted that one problem at the training center, nearly $2,000 in missing funds, was considered serious enough by Clerk of the Circuit Court Betty Strifler that she turned the matter over to the State Attorney's Office for investigation.

She met with county staff about the audit in July, gave the documents to investigators in August, and felt it was time the county commissioners were in the loop at the end of September.

County Administrator Richard Wesch, who oversees the operations that were critiqued in the audits, tried to stop Strifler from addressing the commission. His reason was that it was part of an active criminal investigation and that releasing the information would hurt the case. Strifler checked with the State Attorney's Office, which had no problem with her presenting the audit to the commission.

After she spoke on Sept. 24, Commissioner Jim Fowler tried to head off any discussion of the findings, telling Strifler: "I doubt that there will be any questions at this time."

Not so. Commissioner Vicki Phillips had noticed other items in the audit, such as public records that were thrown away or stored in a bathroom and a method of paying instructors at the center, that violated county policy.

Phillips wanted some answers. Commission Chairman Fowler was more interested in shutting her up.

"We're not going to address them now, Commissioner Phillips," he said, abruptly ending the discussion.

A second audit, dealing with fuel operations, came up later in the meeting. And once again, Phillips and Fowler were in a tug of war.

The audit showed problems ranging from the county's failure to apply for $63,000 in state gas tax refunds to indications that the county overstated by several thousand gallons the amount of fuel on hand.

Phillips wanted an explanation about this sloppiness. Fowler would have none of it.

Using perverse logic, Fowler downplayed the importance of audits.

Although he acknowledged that the purpose of an audit is to "uncover deficiencies," he noted that "next year, when they audit again, they're going to find something else."

Maybe so. But isn't that the point of an audit? Those "deficiencies" are exposed because the expectation is that the bosses will take an interest in fixing them.

For reasons unstated, Fowler did not want to know about the problems at the county facilities. Or, at least, he didn't want them discussed openly.

Phillips got it right, though. By continuing to press for answers, she at least kept the issue from being swept under the rug, for one day anyway.

As she said, "I don't have a lot of confidence that these issues are going to be corrected because this board has sat here and made no comments when these audits come forward. And when we leave here today, it will be out of sight and out of mind."

For some commissioners, that option is all too irresistible.

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