Local politics is an odd beast. Men and women are elected by, often, only a handful of a village’s or town’s population to oversee multimillion-dollar budgets and make important decisions that can affect the daily lives of thousands of people.
And if we’re honest with ourselves, how many of us (the ones who even vote in local elections) are confident that the candidates we choose are truly qualified, not just to lead, but to run the business of municipal government?
A recent audit of the village of Walton brings this question into high relief. “All but non-existent” was the attention-grabbing phrase used by the state comptroller’s office to describe the village’s accounting system.
The audit includes a lengthy and eye-opening litany of issues, the theme of which is lack of oversight. It doesn’t say that any money is missing or misappropriated because of fraud or folly. What is says instead is that, if money were missing, no one would be the wiser, because no one is minding the shop.
Village Mayor Patrick Meredith has all but fallen on his sword, telling The Daily Star that the board has already taken steps to implement most of the audit’s recommendations. He wrote to the comptroller’s office that he and the board are taking the recommendations seriously, and are “engaging in meaningful conversations about our shared accountability for the fiscal procedures.”
That’s great, but with all due respect to Mr. Meredith, that conversation should have happened a long time ago — like when he and his colleagues took office.
In the absence of these sorts of audits, which are performed periodically for municipalities throughout the state, there aren’t a lot of assurances that the people running your local government are handling the money properly. Elected officials are encouraged to complete training courses offered by the comptroller’s office to help them understand the mechanisms of local government, but they aren’t mandatory.
The audit prompted two Walton officials to attend training, which is good as far as it goes. But this whole matter could possibly have been avoided if they had gotten the proper training when they took office.
The audit found no evidence of ill intent, fraud or corruption. But a system that allows simple human error to go unchecked can be just as damaging. We’re glad to see Walton getting started down the right path, but it doesn’t excuse the gross negligence that was shown here. We hope this incident is instructive to other municipalities, and encourages other officials to get the training they need to ensure that public funds are handled responsibly.