The McLean County state’s attorney has given the County Board Finance Committee a legal opinion that effectively backs the Board and the County Treasurer in a dispute with the County Auditor.
The request for an opinion came after Auditor Michelle Anderson claimed independent authority to set financial record keeping policy.
“The auditor, had took (sic) it upon herself, as she often does, to send emails to us, individually, about what the AG’s opinion was, creating an issue, at least in my mind, as to who had the authority to do it,” said County Board member Chuck Erickson at Wednesday afternoon’s Finance Committee meeting.
Anderson changed financial reporting rules in the systems of accrual and cash accounting and did not communicate with others about the changes, creating questions.
“The policy need arose from the confusion that ensued when our department heads and others noticed that our accounting system had changed,” said County Administrator Camille Rodriguez.
The dispute with County Treasurer Rebecca McNeil escalated into Anderson’s public accusation that McNeil was lying. Records subsequently indicated the assertion was false and that Anderson had not forwarded a significant number of bills to the treasurer’s office for payment.
Assistant State’s Attorney Trevor Sierra wrote the opinion.
“The County Board is authorized to determine the basis of accounting with respect to the County’s system of accounts, in accordance with Governmental Accounting Standards Board rules,” wrote Sierra.
The document indicates there are no court cases that directly address the point. But other evidence confirmed Anderson does not have the authority she alleged earlier.
“A county auditor’s statutory role as the county’s general accountant entails no policymaking authority,” according to the opinion. “From the plain meaning of the statutory language, it is apparent the County Board has exclusive authority to install a system of accounts."
Finance Committee Chair Jim Soeldner said it’s not likely the county will pass a new policy clarifying which set of financial reporting rules to use. The opinion is enough.
“And so, I’m hoping that maybe the fact we’ve got this opinion – we can put it in our back pocket if we need to. But at this point things are going to run smoothly and there’s no reason to make … demands isn’t the right word,” said Soeldner.
The conflict appears to be subsiding. County Board member Josh Barnett asked McNeil at the committee meeting if the auditor is being timelier in forwarding county bills to the treasurer for payment.
“There was obviously a catchup period during the month of October, countywide,” said McNeil.
“And outside of that particular report, have you seen bills flowing more readily from the auditor’s office as they previously have?” asked Barnett.
“Yes, our communication and flow of work has increased/improved,” replied McNeil.
And Soeldner said Anderson has dropped her unilateral change in procedures.
“We are back to the modified accrual we had before this problem all began. In other words, we work on a cash basis throughout the year and then it’s all accrued to the different departments,” said Soeldner.
Anderson did not attend the Finance Committee meeting. She had not responded to an email seeking comment at the time of publication of this story.
The dispute with McNeil is not the first time Anderson has had disagreements with other parts of county government. The late Recorder of Deeds Lee Newcom, the Sheriff’s Department through its administration of the grant funding for Task Force Six regional law enforcement investigations, and then-County Board member Dave Selzer have all figured in disputes over a period of years. A different county now administers the Task Force Six grant.
There are four candidates for County Auditor in the next election cycle: Anderson, Republican primary challenger Tricia Malott, Democrat Rob Fazzini, and Libertarian Kevin Woodard.
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