Monday, February 7, 2011

Taking the keys away

Removing elected officials

The aging of America came to the forefront at the start of 2011 as leading edge Baby Boomers began to turn 65. Close on the heels of that is the Ronald Reagan Centennial, compete with speculation by his youngest son that the Gipper may have been in the early stages of the Alzheimer’s disease that claimed his life while still in the White House. Those allegations are quite curious because it seems that young Ron was at least somewhat estranged from his father during that time.
We have gotten so accustomed to the curious comments made by Vice President Joe Biden that they are dismissed as wacky comments. The mainstream media seems to have forgotten that Biden underwent brain surgery in 1988 to fix an aneurysm.
As Boomers gray many of them grapple with the challenges of aging parents. Indeed, Boomers of a certain age are either dreading, deeply involved with, or getting over the heart wrenching experience of watching their parents decline.
One of the more delicate dilemmas faced by many families is when and how to get Mom or Dad to stop driving before they hurt themselves or someone else. It will be interesting to see how the Boomers deal with that when their turn comes. Cars that drive themselves will find a huge market among Boomers.
As life expectancy increases people remain actively involved in all facets of activity. The age of 65 was selected as “normal” retirement age because few people lived that long in the late 1800s. Those who were still around at 65 were not expected to survive much longer, so providing an old age pension was an inexpensive way to ensure employee loyalty.
Now people routinely survive well into their eighth decade and often participate fully in a wide range of activities, including government and business. They contribute wisdom and judgment gained by experience to their endeavors.
Sometimes, however, people remain in responsible positions as their cognition declines. The danger posed by dear Uncle Harry to staying behind the wheel when he forgets to drive on the right side of the road is clear. If he doesn’t believe he is unable to drive, taking his keys away is a long and painful process.
In matters of government, removal from office is a convoluted process, as it should be. But the problems created by those who stay on are more difficult to measure.
On the one hand, those people may no longer be able to understand the issues at hand and make useful decisions. On the other hand, they sometimes make embarrassing but necessary observations about matters that others try to sweep under the rug.
In Virginia we have general elections every year. In theory, this should ensure that public officials are kept on their toes and sent to the showers by voters when they are no longer up to the task. In reality, many jurisdictions have elected officials who have been in office longer than some hereditary monarchs.
Every election period the voters, for whatever reason, give those long term incumbents one more term until they have been in office for decades.
Then, there are situations like that swirling around Goochland County Treasurer Brenda Grubbs.
Last week, Grubbs was reportedly arrested for confessing to embezzling large sums of money from the county and moving it via wire transfer to the United Arab Emirates. Since then investigators from a wide range of law enforcement agencies have been swarming over county financial records. In spite of all that, Grubbs remains in office and is still collecting her salary.
Surely Grubbs is not the first Virginia Constitutional officer to be in serious legal trouble. Given the volatile nature of politics it is important that elected officials not be removed from office for frivolous reasons. Surely there is some legal mechanism that would at least put Grubbs on unsalaried leave until she has received her day in court.
Conditions that permitted Grubbs to make wire transfers were brought to the attention of the Board of Supervisors in the 2010 Comprehensive Annual Financial Review (CAFR).
The CAFR states that adequate segregation of duties does not exist in the Treasurer’s Office and that the “treasurer has the ability to initiate, approve and post wire transfers without secondary approval.” Those remarks are found on page 129 of the 2010 CAFR, which is posted in its entirety on the county website on the Finance Department page.
In light of recent developments, it is incomprehensible that the supervisors ignored this warning. You would think, after the financial mess in the utility department, whose resolution still has a slight aroma of cover up, that they would be hyper vigilant about money matters. It is also curious that the board chairman permitted no discussion or questions about the CAFR following its presentation during the January 2011 board meeting.
Stewardship of public money is perhaps the most important duty of the supervisors. Failure to address threats to the safety of county money is very troubling. Hopefully, the voters of Goochland will make the necessary changes in November.


Anonymous said...

If my memory is correct Mr. Eades suggested that the Treasurers office should be supervised by the county administrator. If that could be accomplished, at least some oversight of that office should discourage future illegal activity. Ron Nease

Anonymous said...

A few comments/questions:

1)Isn't the VA Auditor of Public Accounts tasked with reviewing Treasurer operations in all localities? What were its findings related to Goochland for the last few years? What is the average amount of time that an APA auditor spends in reviewing Treasurer operations?

2) Did the finding related to the Treasurer's office show up in the 2009 CAFR as well? It sounds as if the control weakness existed before fiscal 2010.

3)It's very, very strange that this supposedly started in August 2009, given the prior problems in the County. Why would an employee COMMENCE an embezzlement scheme at a time when county finances were coming under close scrutiny? Is it possible that the increased scrutiny forced someone to change a modus operandi?

4)Were the funds that were embezzled recorded on the County's books? If so, how? If not, how were the missing funds concealed on the bank reconciliation? Was someone other than the Treasurer performing the bank reconciliation? (The 2010 CAFR indicates that monthly bank reconciliations were often performed 3 months behind.)

Anonymous said...

BOS has no oversight for treasury-- as an elected official, she answers to the state. The county administrator cannot oversee the Treasury dept. This is why sveral of the BOS have been in favor of doing away wit this dept. and having a finance dept that is answerable to the county.

Anonymous said...

RE previous comment:

Although it is true that the BOS & County Administrator have limited ability to influence the Treasurer's office, it is also true that both the VA APA and the independent auditor have a responsibility to assess the effectiveness of internal controls in the Treasurer's office. Because the Treasurer directly controls almost all receipts of a county, the internal controls in place in that office are critical in safeguarding a county's assets.

Anonymous said...

Here's hoping that you will provide an update on today's BOS meeting, and provide more details than are currently being provided by local media.

This case should really get statewide attention. In many places, the constitutional form of government is very outdated. It is also highly inefficient, as constitutional offices are funded primarily through the State, and not accountable to either the BOS or the County Admnistrator.

As a general rule, the offices of the Treasurer and Commisssioner of Revenue are overstaffed to handle peak workflow associated with property tax assessment and collection. Plus, there is a good argument to be made that the current regulatory structure related to constitutional officers (in particular the Treasurer) are ineffective. Constitutional officers also have almost complete discretion to establish their own hiring and personnel policies, including holiday and vacation pay.

If the Tea Party wants a real issue at the local level, this is it.

Anonymous said...

Don't take away this elected position. I know some BOS members want a dictatorship system, but it is a turn in the wrong direction, there is no need to throw the baby out with the bath water.