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John Nephew

Maplewood City Council Policy & Politics


Open Letters and Audits

The front page of the Maplewood website has an open letter to residents from Acting City Manager Chuck Ahl, addressing concerns about the city's finances. It will also be printed in the next city newsletter that is mailed to residents each month.

The key message in the letter is to reassure residents that no evidence of misappropriation or wrongdoing has been found. Rather, the underlying problem is that the city's accounting has not been kept up to date. This is understandable, given that the finance department was seriously short-staffed at various times last year. I believe we went from a full complement of eight employees in 2006 down to a low of just two people in the finance department for one portion of 2007. A lack of timely accounting has a ripple effect on planning and budgeting city-wide (remember the erroneous claims from certain elected officials and their supporters that the Community Center was "in the black" last year?), so this is not a situation we want to have going forward. Fortunately, our city staff has made fixing this problem a top priority.

What about an audit? The Pioneer Press called for the State Auditor to get involved with Maplewood's situation, and Councilmember Erik Hjelle has written that he "will be requesting a forensic audit of the city by an outside body."

After last fall's election, I paid a visit to the State Auditor's offices. I happened to stop by on an afternoon when Rebecca Otto had an opening in her schedule, and I was able to learn directly from her about her office's role in relation to local governments like Maplewood. The State Auditor is charged with directly auditing a number of government entities, such as the counties and the three first-class cities (Minneapolis, St. Paul, and Duluth). Normally a city like Maplewood hires a private auditing firm to review its books. However, our city council could request that the State Auditor audit our books as well, and I wondered if this might be a good idea, given the concerns I had about Maplewood's financial management under last year's leadership.

There are a couple of things to keep in mind at this point. One is that our auditors review the books once each year, so they have not yet looked at the 2007 records that are of concern. The second is that requesting the State Auditor to perform our 2007 audit would probably cost us taxpayers more (the city would be paying for the audit either way), since those auditors don't have the familiarity with our books and past practices that our current auditors do.

The State Auditor also is charged with special investigations of local governments -- for example, if someone finds evidence of missing property or funds. As Mr. Ahl's letter indicates, we have found no indication of such misdeeds. If we did, we would be required by law to notify the State Auditor.

After the meeting, my conclusion was that the best course of action was to let the normal auditing process play out. If anything suspicious was uncovered, then we would turn to the State Auditor for investigation and forensic auditing as appropriate. In the meantime, at the January 14th city council meeting, I proposed that the council name a liaison to our auditors, and received that appointment.

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