Open letter to Barb Stanton (August 13, 2015)

Dear Barb,

At Tuesday night’s meeting (August 11, 2015), you asked about the necessity of the public records requests by residents of Apple Valley, and expressed surprise at their extent. You also wondered What’s the journey? You then mentioned that the Town was in some kind of lawsuit because it wasn’t producing records fast enough, or something. You did acknowledge that the Town Council works for us, the people, and that we have the right to see those documents, and added that the Town has never hidden any numbers, and never will.

To me, your comments indicate that you are being ill-served by your staff, an observation I’ve made before. Allow me to provide you with my view on what the Town is and isn’t doing.

The necessity of requesting hundreds of documents from the Town arises out of the Town’s decision to do business in a manner that is not only non-standard, but also seemingly purposefully opaque. You may remember a meeting a couple months ago where a woman asked council and staff how it was possible for the commercial warrant register to show a $20,000 payment for petty cash to the outside vendor handling the restaurant at the golf club. The answer, as I understood it, was that the system was presenting a bunch of payments on that same warrant entry, and simply took the top description to apply to all of the entries on that line. Just so you know, this is so outside of acceptable accounting practices that it immediately raises red flags with anyone who is paying attention.

I’m assuming the Town uses a modern integrated accounting package of some kind. With accounting packages such as this, if you make an entry into the system at one point, that same entry appears everything else in the system the same way. The amount doesn’t change. The description doesn’t change. The budget category and other details don’t change.

Yet what we’re seeing is that details do change in the numbers provided by the Town staff. In this case, somehow the description of one transaction became applied to other dissimilar transactions, and the individual amounts were lumped together in a way that makes the numbers meaningless.

An excellent example can be found in the recently released Ranchos Acquisition Efforts Transparency Report. Alvin Rice, one of those making the public records requests, noticed that while the supporting pages listing past document production costs show $84,765 in costs, the front summary page shows $84,925 in costs. Aren’t you at least a little curious about how the Town’s award winning financial department makes errors such as this? Mr. Rice, by the way, is the one who spotted the $12 million error in the expert appraisal of Ranchos back in March, which caused the Town to have to revise its appraisal. One would expect the Town to be extraordinarily grateful to have citizens so dedicated to good government that they spend hours and hours applying a lifetime of experience to reviewing Town reports, for no compensation at all.

Furthermore, prior to the last document production (Mr. Puckett claimed there were 22 boxes, but delivered only 20), there were 260 missing commercial warrants, with an apparent total value of $1.6 million dollars. Again, this should never happen with a modern integrated system. Actually, it indicates that someone is taking the full report from a modern integrated system, and then selectively re-entering the data for purposes unknown.

The only way to figure out what’s being left out is to gain access to all the documents and go through them. It’s a long, tedious, and thankless process, and one that’s not made any easier when the council, which should be outraged by the seemingly criminal accounting practices employed by the Town staff, but instead scolds those who are attempting to call the council’s attention to a very, very serious situation.

It’s also not made any easier by incomplete document productions, which are presented as being complete. That in part as what the lawsuit is about. When the Town pays its bills using American Express credit cards, but there are no American Express credit card statements or payments shown, that again raises red flags.

As gratifying as it is to hear you acknowledge the right of our citizens to see these documents, and to learn from you that you have no intention of hiding any numbers from the public, the reality seems to be much different, as the Town’s opposition to the lawsuit amply attests.

Rather than worrying about the cost to the Town to fulfil these public records requests, you should be concerned about the cost to the Town if all this smoke is indeed due to a fire raging in the finance department at Town Hall.

Greg Raven is Co-Chair of Apple Valley Citizens for Government Accountability, and is concerned about quality of life issues.