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Requests rise for audits of governments in Missouri

Monday, March 9, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT

JEFFERSON CITY —The Missouri auditor's office received a higher-than-average 26 audit requests for cities, schools and local governing bodies last year. From 2005 to 2007, an annual average of 14 requests were made to conduct special audits of local governments.

That's "a huge increase, which I think indicates that people are somewhat dissatisfied with what's going on in government," State Auditor Susan Montee recently told a group of media executives, editors and reporters gathered at the Capitol.

The auditor's office routinely audits state agencies, statewide elected officials, some counties and courts.

How to do it

Residents who think something is amiss can petition the state to audit political subdivisions, such as cities, school districts and water districts. Or citizens can turn to the governor's office, which also has the power to request a state audit of governmental entities.

The threshold to get a petition audit varies according to the population of an area.

For example, a jurisdiction where fewer than 1,000 people voted in the last gubernatorial election needs signatures from 25 percent of registered voters. A jurisdiction with more than 50,000 people who voted in the last gubernatorial election would need the greater of 5,000 signatures or 5 percent the votes cast.

So the citizens of Quitman, population 46 in rural northwest Missouri, needed just nine signatures when they petitioned in late 2007 for an audit. They turned in 16 valid signatures.

The residents of St. Joseph, population about 74,000, needed and submitted more than 3,212 signatures for an audit of their city government.

Both of those audits were completed in January. None of the 26 audits requested in 2008 are complete yet.

But Montee says nearly all have something in common.

A matter of simple things

"We always find Sunshine (Law) violations in these areas," Montee said in an interview with The Associated Press. "It's a common thread: If you're not being open in your little city and people don't know what's going on, they will think you're doing something wrong."

In many cases, Montee said, it boils down to simple things, such as failing to post meeting agendas or balking at public requests for copies of meeting minutes and government memos.

The audit of tiny Quitman, for example, found that its meeting minutes were not sufficiently detailed and there was no evidence that it held public hearings on proposed tax rates or that the tax rates were formally approved by the board. The audit said Quitman also lacked a budget for its fiscal year that ended in April 2008.

When open-government violations spur citizens to petition her office, the ensuing audits find other notable problems in about half the cases, Montee said.

A lobbyist for cities also connected the Sunshine Law to the increasing number of citizen-requested audits of local governments. But Gary Markenson, the executive director of the Missouri Municipal League, doubts there's actually an increase in open-government violations or any greater distrust of local government.

Acts of retaliation

Markenson said he believes increased attention to the Sunshine Law by the media and various Internet sites has led residents with grievances to more frequently organize against city officials. He calls Sunshine Law requests and audits the latest "offense tools and weapons against city governments."

"Cities are so intimately involved in your daily lives with rules and regulations — you can't park here, you can't have too many dogs — and that angers people and they retaliate," Markenson said.

Montee attributes part of the public's increased attention to open-government issues and audits to the lengthy 2008 presidential campaign, in which government accountability became an issue.

When citizens petition for a state audit, it is the governmental entity being audited that must pay for it, not the petitioners or the state.

The auditor's office estimates the audit of Quitman to cost $4,000 to $8,000, an amount about equal to the town's entire cash balance in its general fund and road fund. The St. Joseph audit is estimated to cost $60,000 to $80,000. An ongoing audit of the city of St. Louis could cost around $1 million, Montee said.

In that regard, the audits sometimes can be ironic. Citizens concerned about waste, fraud or abuse of government resources can end up costing their governments more money. But sometimes, the audits are the best way to shed light on problems.

"The procedure is out there so that a grassroots effort can be made to have someone come in and look at the way government is operating," Montee said.

 


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