The needler in the haystack.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Council finds more financial irregularities. What can be done?


Two more questionable financial items came to light at Monday evening's Council meeting, thanks to Councilor Adrian Mapp -- double payments of $16, 000 each to a vendor, and improper (if not illegal) expenditure of capital funds monies on photography and videotaping of public events in the City.

These items came from the August bills report, only the second which the Council has received. You will recall that a perusal of the first bills report, for July, uncovered an unexplained check for $2,500 to WBLS, which led to the $20,000 check to WBLS, which led to the investigation the Council is conducting into that expenditure.

It seems that the more light is shed on Plainfield's finances, the more questions emerge.

At Monday's meeting, City Administrator Bibi Taylor advised Council members they would receive the September bills list (presumably Tuesday) via email, in Excel format.

One can only wonder what questionable items will be found in this, the third bills list given to the Council.

Two separate but related issues are beginning to emerge in the public discussion this information is generating: first, the propriety of some of Robinson-Briggs' expenditures and second, the sufficiency of the city's audit and control systems.

PROPRIETY OF EXPENDITURES

Councilor Mapp pointed out that for the second month in a row, Robinson-Briggs had authorized payments from a CAPITAL EXPENDITURES ACCOUNT for non-capital expenses; namely, photography and videotaping of community events.

Mapp's position is quite clear: the law does not allow the expenditure of capital funds on anything but the purposes for which they have been dedicated (usually construction or purchases of items with a long life expectancy -- such as fire engines).

Robinson-Briggs, on the other hand, holds that she is free to spend the taxpayers' monies as she sees fit, that her expenses need not be transparent to the public, and that she does not need to come to the Council for approval -- prior or otherwise -- up to and including monies generated from bond issues.

Clearly, unfettered expenditures in such a manner deprive the Council of its oversight role as provided by the charter, and open the door to waste, fraud and abuse.

The Council's first attempt to assert some control through Council President Annie McWilliams' FAIR ordinance was vetoed by Mayor Robinson-Briggs. The attempt to override the veto failed when Councilor Rivers joined Councilors Reid and Burney in voting against it.

The Council now appears poised to take up Councilor Burney's alternative proposal (see here), that the Council get to review purchase orders BEFORE they are executed. I believe that his proposal -- even in its modified form -- would essentially bring the City's day-to-day operations to its knees, a prospect which benefits no one (see my post here).

The CONTROL of Robinson-Briggs' expenditures, which is what Burney's proposal implies, is NOT IN THE PURVIEW OF THE COUNCIL.

What the Council
DOES HAVE is what Teddy Roosevelt referred to as 'THE BULLY PULPIT'. Council has the ability -- now that it is receiving the bills lists -- to throw Robinson-Briggs' spending into sharp relief, using the power of public exposure to shame her into more prudent and transparent fiscal practices. If she is susceptible of public shaming.

We shall see if Burney's proposal has enough support to carry a vote, and then whether it has enough to overturn a presumptive mayoral veto.

In the meantime, I think the Council should focus on going over the monthly bills list with a fine tooth comb and using the powerful probing technique which Council President Annie McWilliams shows off to such advantage.

SUFFICIENCY OF CONTROLS

The second area of concern is the viability of the city's audit and control systems.

Plainfield would be considered the VERY MODEL OF A MODERN FINANCIAL CONTROLS SYSTEM from the point of view of the early TWENTIETH century.

Alas, we are living in the 21st century, and better systems are the norm of the day.

Plainfield's purchasing system is still paper-based, inefficient, and time-consuming. The various people in the purchasing chain only have access to partial information (if any). It is opaque in that the status of an item is not available to anyone in the purchasing chain without several phone calls and conversations, if not visits to another office.

Not only that, the annual auditor's findings have for years recommended that the City tighten up on purchasing procedures -- especially letting staff make purchases WITHOUT PURCHASE ORDERS.

In their defense, some staffers complain the purchasing system is slow and cumbersome and sometimes a purchase is urgent.

A modern system would go a long way to correcting this problem.

Perhaps the Council should be looking into how modernizing the City's audit and control systems could enhance both efficiency and transparency and, by making all portions of the process available to authorized persons instantaneously online (including, say, the Council), arrive at Councilor Burney's goal without a cumbersome ordinance.




-- Dan Damon [follow]

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3 comments:

Bob said...

Well, I'm not ashamed to say, "I told you so.", but "I told you so." We need a forensic audit of the city's books and we need a state investigation coordinated with the City Council's inquiry.

I guess we can't blame it all on Sharon, since she went to the Jerry Green School of Shady Spending. I hope the people of this city get up in arms and kick this wasteful, conceited person out of office!

Blackdog said...

Like O'Rourke said, "Giving money and power to politicians is like giving a bottle of whiskey and the car keys to a group of 15 year old boys!"

Anonymous said...

Apparently the financial irregularities began before Sharon became mayor. See Maria's blog for details.