‘Trust’ is insufficient check on any elected official
Most anyone who has worked for a living, volunteered, or held elected office has stood at the edge of the abyss, looked over it, and made a very important decision: complete honesty and unyielding integrity, or maybe a little dishonesty, maybe a seemingly harmless white lie. The dishonesty might concern office supplies or maybe tools, perhaps a few dollars from the organization no one would miss; for an elected official, it could mean cozying up and getting favors from someone who could benefit from your vote, or perhaps it could mean a little extra money or a gift from such a person.
The situation that The Smoky Mountain News reported about last week concerning the Junaluska Sanitary District is a great illustration of how this happens. The district’s former employee developed a scheme for embezzling a little money each day over a long period of time. Finally caught, she admitted to stealing $210,000 over six years. She repaid it all and did not serve any jail time.
The details of what happened next are still coming to light. Elected board members stepped in to take over duties performed by employees after the embezzler was fired. Despite no clear policy on how such a system should work, some elected sanitary district members began paying themselves the fee they usually got for attending board meetings.
There’s no evidence anyone was stealing or taking advantage of the situation, even though state law prohibits elected leaders from working for the organization they govern. Board members were adamant that they trusted each other and therefore had no issues with the compensation method or questions about the work being performed.
The problem, though, is that the way the elected board members kept records left way too much to the imagination. Were they doing work that deserved up to $250 a day, the amount one board member was getting? Or could they have been padding the compensation since the record keeping was set up in such a way that doing so would be very hard to detect?
A wall calendar in the Junaluska Sanitary District Office was the tool of record for who got paid what, a paper calendar marked with names and check marks. No detailed invoices or itemized reports of work completed, no time clock, no computerized record of activities.
According to an official with the Institute of Government at UNC-Chapel Hill that a reporter for this newspaper talked to, some changes should have been made: “They should have passed another policy because that definitely doesn’t fit. Whether it was unethical, careless, lack of knowledge, I don’t know, but it sounds unusual.”
No matter at what level an elected official serves, that person accepts the responsibility that comes with the office. If all hell breaks loose during your watch and you have to spend much more time doing the job than originally anticipated, that comes with the territory. After uncovering the embezzlement scandal and spending many hours, days and weeks to recover from it, it would be easy to turn a blind eye to elected officials taking unusual steps to keep the district moving forward.
But that’s not how it is supposed to work. Creating formal procedures and checks and balances is how we keep honest people from stepping over that abyss and into an area where there is too much grey and too little black and white. It appears the Junaluska Sanitary District may be correcting some of these accounting and board compensation practices that were just too informal.
More important, though, is the message this should send to all elected bodies, no matter if that’s for something as outside the public eye as a water district or whether it is a town or county board. Take the time to create formal procedures instead of relying on honesty and trust. That’s what taxpayers — in this case, the sanitary district customers — deserve and expect.