Yes we know it’s April 2015, so what is the Gazette doing discussing the town audit report for the year ending December 31, 2013?
Well simply put, in Mason at least, it takes that long to create the audit report and pry it loose from the selectmen. Contrary to a statement made by former selectman McGinnity that “we’ve spent two years trying to get the web site up to where it should be with the calendar, updates, etc. to allow people now have a reliable source to go for town information” (2014 annual report, page 55); our opinion is that without the audits, the web site is not a reliable source.
Backing up in history a bit, the 2012 audit was once on the town web site (see our prior post here). It was sourced from the selectmen’s office, found its way to the town web site via an alternate source, and subsequently was pulled from the town web site when the selectmen discovered they had posted it and simultaneously did not wish to post the 2013 audit.
To use the auditor’s style of wording “the audit is an integral part of town government”. The audit report spends a lot of effort with flowery language describing what the auditors do. And occasionally it makes flowery ‘suggestions’. To those you have to pay attention. If the auditors were too blunt, they’d lose their job; hence all the circumlocutions.
The selectmen relied on a “management” statement in the report, that the audit is “intended solely for the information and use of management, the Board of Selectmen, and others within the organization, and state and federal agencies, and is not intended to be and should not be used by anyone other than these specified parties.”
We’ll malarkey, our knowledge of RSA 91-A whispered to us. “Openness in the conduct of public business is essential to a democratic society. The purpose of this chapter is to ensure both the greatest possible public access to the actions, discussions and records of all public bodies, and their accountability to the people.”
The Mason Selectmen however persisted in their refusal to release the document. We sought a little help from Coalition of New Hampshire Taxpayers. You can read a nice article about them in the Concord Monitor here.
So what was all the fuss about? The short story is that the selectmen overspent the 2013 budget. But stuff happens and there are statutory mechanism to fix that. Probably out of ignorance, the selectmen did not follow them and got chastised for not doing so. Yet the law does not allow protection of public officials, no matter how small the slip up, even if it contradicts public statements.
In the final document (we had a copy of the original draft 6 months earlier), there is an additional discomfort expressed by the auditor about the separation of powers between the selectmen’s office and the treasurer. However all that is murky since some commingling of knowledge of the town books is allowed. However, the auditor did mention it, we suspect as a result of discovering the treasurer was literally assisting with the town books. At this point this issue may be ancient history, since the duties of the new office crew appear to have been clearly defined. Yet we won’t know until the next audit.
So our basic issue still remains “openness” of town government. For the past few years we’ve seen increased public attendance at the selectmen’s meetings (which is good), but the selectmen respond by having more “executive sessions” than we have ever witnessed (which is a bad sign).
In our particular case, our request for the audit generated a selectman question to town counsel to verify that the audit is a public document. Counsel split his decision. According to selecman Moser, the audit is privileged until it is accepted by the selecmen at which point it becomes public. Or in other words, we got the audit and it’s now posted here.
The audit is very boring, and the copy quality is not that fantastic. But don’t blame the auditor, the CD copy of the audit was apparently never delivered to the selectmen, or got lost in the shuffle. The Gazette scanned it in the town offices (using its own computer and scanner) as allowed by law. Paying for information we’ve already paid for seriously rubbed us the wrong way and we fealt it was vital to make a point. What of course would really frost the cake is the selectmen using our scan instead of getting a proper electronic version, but that’s for another story.