In questions and answers, the state auditor slandered the Utah and Uintah commissions for taking power and calling for reforms
Editor’s Note • An earlier version of this report appeared in the Salt Lake Tribune without any intervention from Uintah or Utah officials. This report has been updated to include your comments.
State auditor John Dougall has “a lack of confidence” in Utah County’s lawmakers, he told the Salt Lake Tribune on Friday, calling Uintah County the “epicenter of financial dysfunction.”
The comments came after a series of public clashes between elected officials in these counties this year after the budgetary authority was removed from independently elected county officials / auditors and instead transferred to the Commission’s oversight.
Dougall is tasked with a watchdog role over local governments in the state. In response to the whole dispute, he is now calling for reforms of a state law that allowed the district commissions in 2012 to make such controversial changes. (At an interim political division committee on Nov. 17, Chairman Michael McKell said that state lawmakers intend to draft a bill in the upcoming term to address Dougall’s concerns.)
Utahners who don’t follow the county government’s day-to-day sausage making might be confused as to why there is suddenly so much argument or why it matters. In an interview with The Tribune, Dougall explained why he believes taxpayers should be alerted, why his office seeks to promote accountability, and why the responsibility for making change ultimately rests in the hands of the electorate.
The conversation was edited lightly for length and clarity.
Q: Last month you and your deputy, Hollie Andrus, had an interim session with state lawmakers about the importance of keeping budget and accounting duties separate from the district committees with clerks / auditors, as opposed to what’s in the Districts of Utah and Uintah happening.
Can you highlight some of your concerns?
Douglas: The most important thing we talked about is the importance of segregation of duties. There are many ways to structure things, but you want to make sure that you separate certain functions: receiving money, clearing money, paying out money.
If you combine that into a single person or group, you increase the risk. This can apply to any organization, not just counties, not just governments.
Q: Why are some district committees preferring changes to their offices / auditors now, nearly a decade after the law that allowed this was passed in 2012?
Dougall: This bill came after a problem in Salt Lake County (county officials were in the middle of a lawsuit when the council moved budget duties to the mayor’s office).
The district auditor at the time was at odds with the rest of the district and the district council over who should set the budget. That led to the law.
Q: The Uintah district officials note that you were a state legislature in 2012 and you voted to approve the law at the time.
Douglas: I think we’ve since learned that we’ve gone a step too far. The irony is that the problems hadn’t surfaced until this year. Obviously something has changed in the past two years that has brought this to the fore in at least two counties.
What you’ve seen over time is that certain district committees have been frustrated by certain activities in other offices or want more control over the financial aspects of the district, so they are taking over [consolidation of powers] Dimensions.
Q: In Utah County, the commissioners voted 2-1 last week to split the clerk / auditor’s office instead of removing the bureau’s household chores (which they tried last spring). What are your thoughts on that?
Dougall: Commissioner Tom Sakievich said he was doing this out of concerns about the separation of powers. I find that very ironic considering that a few months ago the Commission tried to move the accounting functions to the Commission. Now you are very concerned about the separation of powers when you didn’t care about it in March? I think there is another agenda than good governance.
(Commission chairman Bill Lee told the Tribune on Monday that it was necessary to split the offices to meet the needs of a growing county and that the commission took action last week to prepare for the 2022 elections, he added and that Dougall had not come forward to raise concerns.)
Q: Can your office investigate this?
Douglas: I don’t think that’s an exam topic per se. It’s more of a political issue.
Q: Do you have any speculation about Utah County’s political motivations?
Douglas: I wish I knew. I have no confidence in the current Utah County Commission as a Utah County resident.
(Commissioner Amelia Powers Gardner, a former clerk / auditor who had the only vote against on the division of the office, said she could “not blame” the state auditor for losing confidence. “There are some things that that just happened very quickly and it’s frustrating for me … I think it’s because of that [the other commissioners] want complete control over the budget process and the financial process. “)
Q: What remedies do Utah Counties have if they are concerned?
Douglas: We have a choice next year. So there are two options: elect other people in office or vote to change the structure of government.
Q: In the fall, your office issued a damning audit report on Uintah County. Some local residents appeared relieved that the state was investigating the county’s practices.
But months later, commissioners continue to dispute the legality of your audit. They also failed to restore the case officer / auditor to budgetary duties as recommended, and they continue to claim that they did nothing wrong in dealing with pandemic monsters.
Does a state revision really have teeth?
Douglas: Basically, the major responsibility rests with the people of Uintah County. They are the ones who elect their elected officials. You have a duty to weigh up and drive meaningful changes.
In various aspects, there are also opportunities for the governor to meddle on certain aspects related to federal COVID money. The attorney general could interfere. But basically it’s tough to fix stupidly.
(The governor’s Bureau of Budget and Administration distributed and booked more than $ 5 million in federal coronavirus aid to Uintah County. A bureau spokesman said he was “in communication with Uintah County about the auditor’s concerns “Stand and that the district officials have reacted.
The spokesman also noted that in September the US Treasury Department raised “concerns about possible misuse” of funds sent to Uintah County.)
Dougall continued, “It is irresponsible that the Uintah County Commission continues to claim that I have no powers, even though the Utah Constitution clearly states that I have the authority to conduct financial audits on public accounts.
The simple fact is that you have a feud between the commission and the case officer / auditor and both of you are in trouble. … you are the epicenter of financial dysfunction.
(In an interview on Monday, Uintah county commissioner Bart Haslem said Dougall’s audit “did not follow the state code,” but noted that issues were identified that the county is working to correct. The commissioner also denied the county Misused federal funds for pandemics.)
Q: You previously told The Tribune that your office decided to investigate Uintah County after receiving multiple whistleblower complaints from local residents. Are you still getting these calls?
Douglas: Yeah. I have a call from a resident of the county in two minutes.
Q: In relation to the reform you are proposing, one issue seems to arise in finding the right expertise for a clerk / auditor position and the complex tasks of financial management that come with it.
A chartered accountant or professional accountant is unlikely to run for office, given the salary cuts normally associated with it. What are your thoughts?
Douglas: It depends on the position and the salary. For example, the Salt Lake County auditor does more than me by comparison. So in some cases the compensation is fair or reasonable. In other cases, of course, you run the risk of having insufficient or insufficient resources to recruit suitable talent.
You may have the same problem with a district attorney or other technical position.
Q: I could imagine that in rural areas with smaller budgets it is even more difficult to recruit talent?
Douglas: Here you come into a problem. However, if you are faced with the challenge of finding a qualified auditor, [how] is your district commission more qualified?